TSA extending travel mask mandate for two weeks

The Biden administration will extend the federal mask mandate for all transportation networks through May 3, 15 days after it had been set to expire amid a new coronavirus surge fueled by the BA.2 variant.

The Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) mask mandate for travel on airplanes, in airports, on buses and on rail systems was set to expire on April 18. The two-week extension is from an order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based off the rise in cases from BA.2 since early April.

“In order to assess the potential impact the rise of cases has on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and health care system capacity, the CDC Order will remain in place at this time. At CDC’s recommendation, TSA will extend the security directive and emergency amendment for 15 days, through May 3, 2022,” a CDC spokesperson told The Hill.

This extension of the TSA mask mandate is the shortest yet. The mandate has been in place for 14 months and initially went into effect with an expiration date of May 2021.

TSA extended it a few times, most recently in March by one month. Before that, it had been extended in December before it was set to expire just after the new year.

After the two weeks, the CDC will determine what’s next for the mask mandate, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Wednesday, leaving the door open to more extensions. She also said she wouldn’t make a prediction on if the public should expect more of these short-term extensions.

What the CDC is “trying to do is give a little bit more time to assess [the BA.2 variant’s] potential impact, the rise of the cases have on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and the health care system capacity. And, their assessment, from a medical standpoint, a data gathering standpoint, is that two weeks would give them some additional time to do that,” she said.

The White House was under pressure to make a decision on whether to extend the mandate in light of the rise in cases, and White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha said earlier this week that extending the mandate was “absolutely” being considered.

Several states have seen a rise in COVID-19 cases as BA.2, a highly transmissible subvariant of omicron, has spread. The city of Philadelphia reinstated its indoor mask mandate on Monday and Washington, D.C., has also recently experienced a rash of cases among high-profile individuals after the annual Gridiron Club dinner two weeks ago.

President Biden signed an executive order on his first full day in office directing federal agencies to “immediately take action” to mandate the use of masks on trains, intercity buses, ferries and in airports. 

The federal rule allows TSA to fine passengers who refuse to wear a mask while traveling. Under the rules, individuals who do not comply with the mandate will face a minimum fine of $500, with repeat offenders facing fines as high as $3,000.

Airlines for America, which represents major U.S. airlines, on Wednesday sent a letter to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, calling for an end to the mask mandate.

“It makes no sense to require masks on a plane when masks are not recommended in places like restaurants, bars or crowded sports facilities. Further, the burden of enforcing these requirements has fallen on airline employees for the past two years, oftentimes creating challenging situations with frustrated passengers,” the trade group wrote.

The group’s letter follows a letter to Jha on Friday from major industry groups, including A4A and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, arguing that the mask requirements for air travel can be put to rest.

Twenty-one states also sued the administration late last month in an effort to get the mask mandate for travel lifted, and last month, eight Senate Democrats joined with the GOP on a measure to nix the mandate.

Updated 4:23 p.m.

Tags Ashish Jha Biden Coronavirus Jen Psaki Joe Biden mask mandate Rochelle Walensky TSA Xavier Becerra
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