US tightens pre-travel testing windows, extends mask mandates for travelers to fight omicron variant

Dec 2, 2021

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the confirmed start date of the new testing policy.

The Biden Administration has announced a plan of action to ward off the omicron variant of the coronavirus — including several steps that will impact travelers.

The new protocols, which the White House unveiled Thursday, include shoring up pre-departure testing requirements for international travel. Starting on Monday, Dec. 6, 2022, all travelers coming to the U.S., whether they are vaccinated or not, must produce a negative COVID-19 test taken within one calendar day of their departure. The policy applies to all international flights that depart for the U.S. at (or after) 12:01 a.m. Eastern Time on Dec. 6.

This includes international visitors as well as U.S. citizens and residents returning home. The current policy allows a three-day window for fully vaccinated individuals — but that will be shortened for all travelers as of Monday.

The move is designed to minimize the spread of the omicron variant in the U.S. The World Health Organization (WHO) has already labeled omicron a “variant of concern.” The Biden Administration last week already implemented a temporary ban restricting travel from eight Southern African countries.

The federal mask mandate for airplanes, trains and other forms of public transportation has also been extended until March 18. Travelers must continue to mask up during international or other public travel as well as in transportation hubs such as airports and indoor bus terminals. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will continue to enforce mask-wearing, with violators facing fines that start at $500 and potentially reaching as high as $3,000 for repeat offenders.

President Biden is expected to discuss the U.S. strategy for fighting a possible COVID-19 resurgence over the winter on Thursday, as well as the extension of the mask mandate. Other aspects of the new COVID strategy includes expanding free at-home COVID tests for Americans through testing sites, community centers and clinics for rural areas.

There have been two confirmed cases of the Omicron COVID variant discovered in the U.S. — the first in California and the most recent a Minnesota man who had traveled to New York City.

Featured image by Bloomberg via Getty Images

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