WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is lifting its requirement that all travelers test negative for coronavirus before flying to the U.S., amid pressure from airlines that viewed the measure as excessive and blamed it for depressing ticket purchases.
The change took effect just after midnight June 12 and will be reassessed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 90 days, according to a senior administration official.
International travelers flying to the U.S. were required to present proof of a negative coronavirus test taken within a day of their departure flight to the U.S. Foreign nationals will still be required to be vaccinated against coronavirus to enter the country, with limited exceptions.
The health agency may decide to reinstate the requirement if a new, concerning variant of the virus emerges, the official said. The administration will continue to recommend testing prior to air travel, but believes that coronavirus vaccines and new treatments made it possible to ease the requirement.
The move is not likely to significantly increase the risk to the U.S. of coronavirus spread, according to biosecurity expert Eric Toner, though he said travelers should still wear masks when they fly to reduce the chance of spread.
“I have long thought the testing requirement for travel to the U.S. was not evidence based or logical — and most other countries have abandoned this approach,” said Toner, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, in an interview. “It’s been a hardship for the airlines and a real hardship for travelers as people get back to travel for business and leisure.”
Airline stocks climbed briefly on the news, with an S&P index of carriers rising less than 1% Friday morning before turning negative amid a broader slump in equities.
Sen. Roger Wicker, the Mississippi Republican who is ranking member of the Senate committee overseeing transportation, said in a statement he was “relieved that the Biden administration has finally seen reason and removed the requirement.”
“Ending this burdensome requirement is long overdue and something I have been urging for months,” Wicker said.
Top airline executives have said in recent weeks that flyers were concerned about the risk of booking international travel only to become stranded in foreign countries. While domestic airline ticket purchases have largely rebounded to prepandemic levels, international trips have not.
“With the widespread availability of effective treatment options and vaccines, we believe this is the right time for this decision,” American Airlines Group Inc. said in a statement about the testing decision.
American Chief Executive Officer Robert Isom called the rule “nonsensical” in remarks at an industry conference last week and said it was depressing both business and leisure travel.
The U.S. Travel Association estimated that eliminating the requirement could bring 5.4 million visitors to the U.S. and an additional $9 billion in travel spending through the remainder of the calendar year.
“Today marks another huge step forward for the recovery of inbound air travel and the return of international travel to the United States,” U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow said in an emailed statement. “The Biden administration is to be commended for this action, which will welcome back visitors from around the world and accelerate the recovery of the US travel industry.”
The travel and tourism industry has traditionally supported one in 20 U.S. jobs, either directly or indirectly, creating $1.9 trillion in economic activity in 2019, the Commerce Department said in a fact sheet this week.
But the COVID-19 pandemic cut deeply into the industry. Even with a partial recovery, spending by international visitors in 2021 was only 34% — $81 billion — of prepandemic levels, the Commerce Department said.
“It’s huge for the industry,” Helane Becker, a senior research analyst at Cowen, said Friday in an appearance on Bloomberg Television. The change should have “huge positive effects on international travel right into the fall,” she said.
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