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US extends mask mandate for travelers; stricter testing guidelines to begin for flights into US

Mask mandates have been a flashpoint for air travelers, accounting for 72% of unruly passenger complaints in 2021.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. mandate for travelers to wear masks on airplanes, trains and buses as well as airports and train stations will be extended until mid-March, the White House announced Thursday morning. It's also enacting tighter testing restrictions for people flying into the U.S.

Reuters and the New York Times were first to report on the development Wednesday, on the same day the U.S. officially identified the first case of the new omicron variant in the country.

Beginning the week of Dec. 6, Biden said, all travelers to the U.S., regardless of nationality or vaccination status, will need to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within one day of boarding flights. That compares with three days now for those who have been vaccinated. The White House has shelved tougher options such as requiring post-arrival testing or requiring quarantines upon arrival in the U.S.

According to the CDC's website, the new testing policy for international travelers flying to the U.S. begins Dec. 6 just after midnight EST. Alternatively, the CDC's website states that travelers can provide "documentation of having recovered from COVID-19 in the past 90 days."

The White House has not yet acted to require domestic U.S. travelers to be vaccinated or get tested. Officials believe such a requirement would be mired in litigation.

“We base our decisions on the advice of the health and medical experts, what’s going to be most effective and what we can implement," press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday.

Biden is extending his directive requiring masks on airplanes and other public transit, which had been set to expire in January, through March 18, the White House said.

Mask mandates have been a flashpoint both on the ground and in the air during the COVID-19 pandemic. Passengers flouting the federal mask requirement have made up more than 72% of unruly passenger reports by the Federal Aviation Administration this year. Nearly 4,000 mask-related incidents have been reported.

Much remains unknown about the new omicron variant, which was first identified in South Africa. It's unclear whether it is more contagious than previous strains, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said Wednesday more would be known about the omicron strain in two to four weeks as scientists grow and test lab samples of the virus.

Also, a new CDC order will require airlines to gather contact-tracing information on passengers heading to the U.S. who have been in southern Africa in the previous two weeks. Under the order, obtained by the Associated Press, airlines will have to keep the information on those passengers for 30 days and give it to the CDC within 24 hours of a request by the health agency.

The follows Biden’s order that bars most foreign nationals from entering the U.S. if they have been in southern Africa, where the omicron variant of COVID-19 was first reported. The ban does not apply to American citizens or permanent U.S. residents who have been in those countries, although they must show evidence of a negative test for COVID-19.

Other Associated Press journalists contributed to this report.