Travelers on airplanes, trains, buses and in airports and train stations should be prepared to continue to wear masks for holiday travel and into next year.
The Transportation Security Administration will extend its travel mask mandate through Jan. 18 to “minimize the spread of COVID-19 on public transportation,” according to a Tuesday statement from the agency.
“The emerging evidence about the Delta variant demonstrates it is more formidable than the original virus,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement Tuesday. “Wearing a well-fitting mask that covers your nose and mouth is a way to prevent germs from spreading between yourself and other people.”
The federal mandate, which was put in place on Feb. 1, had been set to expire May 11 but was extended in April through Sept. 13.
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The current rule includes fines for people who don’t comply and exempts travelers under age 2 and those with certain disabilities.
Airlines dealing with backlash over mask requirement
Airlines began requiring masks early in the pandemic but have faced resistance from some passengers and have long sought the federal government’s support.
Reports abound of passengers refusing to wear masks and becoming aggressive with flight crews.
The extension has the travel industry’s “full support,” according to a statement from Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy for the U.S. Travel Association, a travel industry trade group.
“Extending the federal mask mandate for travel makes sense for the current health environment,” the statement said. “The universal wearing of masks in airports and on airplanes, trains and other forms of public transportation is both an effective safeguard against spreading the virus and boosts public confidence in traveling – both of which are paramount for a sustained economic recovery.”
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines, released a statement Tuesday saying the extended mask mandate would help keep passengers and aviation workers safe, especially amid the surge in COVID-19 cases.
“We have a responsibility in aviation to keep everyone safe and do our part to end the pandemic, rather than aid the continuation of it,” Nelson’s statement said. “We all look forward to the day masks are no longer required but we’re not there yet.”
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly, chairman of industry lobbying group Airlines for America (A4A), said in July, before the delta variant surge, that Southwest and the trade group were not recommending another extension of the federal transportation mask mandate.
Kelly, answering reporter questions during Southwest’s quarterly earnings conference call, said airlines support following CDC guidance on masks, which says vaccinated people don’t need one but unvaccinated people should wear one.
Unless that advice changes, he said, “we wouldn’t advocate from Southwest’s perspective, or the A4A for that matter, extending the mandate.”
Kelly is the first U.S. airline executive to publicly express what is in effect support for letting the mandate expire, though United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said he expected it to be lifted in September.
“What they decide, we’ll enforce,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said earlier in July on the airline’s quarterly earnings conference call. “It’s not for us to opine.”
On Tuesday, A4A spokesperson Katherine Estep said U.S. airlines would comply with the federal mask mandate and strictly enforce the requirement in collaboration with the TSA and Federal Aviation Administration, “as they have done for months.”
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Contributing: Dawn Gilbertson