The Biden administration has decided that, starting early Sunday, it will lift the requirement that all travelers bound for the United States by air, including American citizens, must show negative coronavirus test results before boarding flights, a senior administration official said Friday morning.
The decision was met with joy in the travel industry, which has been lobbying the administration hard to get rid of the requirement.
“It’s a Friday miracle,” said Marc Casto, chairman of the board of the American Society of Travel Advisors, a trade group. “It’s huge. It’s monumental for the travel industry.”
Casto said he believed dropping the mandate would lead to double-digit percentage increases in the number of people flying and staying in hotels abroad. American travelers had held off on vacation plans because of the mandate, worried that they would be stuck in foreign countries if they discovered they were infected and forced to pay thousands of dollars in hotel fees and other expenses, he said. Conversely, international travelers to the United States faced the uncertainty of testing positive before their trips began. (International travelers to the United States will still be required to be fully vaccinated.)
The testing requirement was first introduced in January 2021, when fewer than 10% of Americans were vaccinated and new infections were reaching record levels, but in recent months, with higher vaccination rates and less severe cases, travel industry representatives have been mounting pressure on the Biden administration to lift the requirement.
In December, amid heightened concerns about the omicron variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tightened the rule by requiring that travelers present a negative test taken within 24 hours of departure. Previously, a test taken within three days was required.
The policy will expire Sunday at 12:01 a.m., according to the administration official, after CDC officials determined that the widespread adoption of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 no longer make it a requirement.
But the official said that the CDC will re-evaluate the decision in 90 days and said that the requirement for pre-departure testing could be reinstated if there are new concerns about another variant.
The administration official said that the CDC would continue to recommend testing for travel.
New confirmed cases in the United States have been roughly flat at around 110,000 a day on average as of Thursday over the past two weeks, according to a New York Times database, after rising from lower than 30,000 a few months ago. Infections, though, are thought to be widely undercounted, as at-home test results are often not officially reported, and many people with no or mild symptoms may not test at all. Death counts have been volatile in recent weeks but remain below 400 per day on average.
In recent months, as countries across Europe lifted travel restrictions and more Americans traveled abroad, many of them had to self-isolate after testing positive before returning home. The CDC recommends travelers isolate and delay travel for 10 days regardless of symptoms or a negative test taken within the isolation period. Some people who did not want to wait that long used a “backdoor” route, returning home via land borders with Canada and Mexico, which do not require a coronavirus test.
For Biden, the decision to drop the requirement is welcome news at a time that the administration is struggling on a series of fronts. White House officials described the decision as a validation of the president’s efforts to aggressively combat the virus.
The CDC decision was important and overdue, said Dr. Luciana Borio, a former acting chief scientist at the Food and Drug Administration who also oversaw public health preparedness for the National Security Council. She said that federal scientists had to continue considering the goals of the pandemic response and how effective certain interventions are. Most transmission, she said, was occurring domestically.
“If the idea is to minimize the number of COVID cases in this country, the impact of entrance screening is negligible,” she said. “We are at a point where we have the tools to minimize morbidity and mortality associated with the virus. We should be focusing on the measures most effective.”
The rule, she added, also “disproportionately impacts people who can’t afford to be stuck in an international country.”
Some American travelers currently on trips abroad breathed a sigh of relief Friday amid fears that they would test positive and get stuck. Lucia Torres, 39, who is booked to fly home to Florida from Spain on Tuesday with her husband, said she canceled some activities planned for the last days of her vacation because she was worried she would test positive before her flight home. She and her husband are vaccinated and boosted.
“When we booked our vacation we decided to take the risk, but we haven’t been able to completely relax because it’s always in our heads,” she said. “Now we don’t have to worry; I can book a massage, go to a party, do whatever people do on vacation.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.