By Zeke Miller in Washington via The Associated Press
The Biden administration is lifting its requirement that international air travelers to the U.S. take a COVID-19 test within a day before boarding their flights, easing one of the last remaining government mandates meant to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
A senior administration official said Friday that the mandate will expire Sunday at 12:01 a.m. EDT, adding that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined it is no longer necessary.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview the formal announcement, said that the agency would reevaluate the need for the testing requirement every 90 days and that it could be reinstated if a troubling new variant emerges.
The Biden administration put in place the testing requirement last year, as it has moved away from restrictions that banned nonessential travel from several dozen countries — most of Europe, China, Brazil, South Africa, India and Iran — and instead focus on classifying individuals by the risk they pose to others. It was coupled with a requirement that foreign, non-immigrant adults traveling to the United States need to be fully vaccinated, with only limited exceptions.
The initial mandate allowed those who were fully vaccinated to show proof of a negative test within three days of travel, while unvaccinated people had to present a test taken within one day of travel.
In November, as the highly transmissible omicron variant swept the world, the Biden administration toughened the requirement and required all travelers, regardless of vaccination status, to test within a day of travel to the U.S.
Airline and tourism groups have been pressing the administration for months to eliminate the testing requirement, saying it discourages people from booking international trips because they could be stranded overseas if they contract the virus on their trip.
Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association, called lifting the testing rule “another huge step forward for the recovery of inbound air travel and the return of international travel to the United States.”
While domestic U.S. travel has returned nearly to pre-pandemic levels, international travel — which is very lucrative for the airlines — has continued to lag. In May, U.S. international air travel remained 24% below 2019 levels, with declines among both U.S. and foreign citizens, according to trade group Airlines for America.
Many other countries have lifted their testing requirements for fully vaccinated and boosted travelers in a bid to increase tourism.
In February, travel groups argued that the testing requirement was obsolete because of the high number of omicron cases already in every state, higher vaccinations rates and new treatments for the virus.
“I’m glad CDC suspended the burdensome coronavirus testing requirement for international travelers, and I’ll continue to do all I can to support the strong recovery of our hospitality industry,” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., said in a statement.
The requirement for a negative COVID-19 test before flying to the U.S. dates to January 2021. It is the most visible remaining U.S. travel restriction of the pandemic era.
In April, a federal judge in Florida struck down a requirement that passengers wear masks on planes and public transportation, saying that the CDC had exceeded its authority. The Biden administration is appealing that ruling, saying it aims to protect the CDC’s ability to respond to future health emergencies.
Despite ending the testing requirement, the CDC will continue to recommend COVID-19 testing prior to air travel of any kind as a safety precaution, according to the senior administration official.
Travelers found creative ways to avoid the rule. This spring, several Canadian teams in the National Hockey League flew to cities near the border, then took buses into the U.S. to avoid the risk of losing players who tested positive.
Banner image: Passengers get a COVID-19 test at Heathrow Airport in London, Nov. 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File)
AP airlines writer David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.