Biden’s sweeping vaccine mandate stops short of domestic flyers

Biden’s sweeping vaccine mandate stops short of domestic flyers
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(Sept 11): Among the major measures President Joe Biden announced this week to get more Americans vaccinated, one high-profile move was missing: requiring vaccines or negative tests to get on an airplane.

Countries including France, Italy and Canada have imposed requirements, or will, for domestic travel as a way to slow the spread of the coronavirus and its emerging variants. Vaccine and testing requirements have taken hold widely for international flights, and the U.S. is weighing further restrictions on visitors, including a vaccine requirement for all foreign nationals.

But, at home, the U.S. still only requires a mask for domestic flights, despite calls from some health experts to raise the bar and require proof of vaccines or a negative test. Biden stopped short of tightening the rules when he unveiled a new series of vaccine mandates on Thursday that will affect millions of federal and health care workers, as well as a vaccine-or-testing requirement for any business with 100 or more staff.

Instead, the administration doubled fines for people who refuse to wear masks on planes. Biden has walked a fine line to avoid triggering more backlash at home, where public health measures and restrictions have become political lightning rods. A top aide signaled Friday that the administration isn’t interested in mandates aimed at consumers.

“Workplaces are a very efficient and effective way to ensure that people get vaccinated,” White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said Friday, when asked if they’ve ruled out a flight requirement. But, he added, “We’re not taking any measures off the table.”

Air travel into the U.S. from some countries remains restricted -- including a ban on entry of most non-Americans who have visited parts of Europe recently. All travelers into the U.S. need to show a recent negative test, regardless of vaccination status.

But other countries restrict domestic travel, too. Italy and France require proof of vaccine, a recent negative test or recovery from a virus for domestic flights and long-distance trains, while Canada has said it will require vaccinations for all air travel by the end of October.

‘Low-hanging fruit’

In the U.S., however, there’s been little appetite for vaccine requirements for Americans arriving internationally, or any traveler domestically, and airline chief executives have warned of headaches -- though carriers regularly handle vaccine screening for international travel.

Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, has urged the administration to require vaccinations for domestic air and train travel, instead of just requiring masks. “A travel requirement is low-hanging fruit,” she said in an email. “If you want the privilege of traveling, you need to get vaccinated.”

Airlines have pushed against any such measure, which could sap consumer demand -- or act as an incentive for people who’ve held off until now. United Airlines Holdings Inc. CEO Scott Kirby told MSNBC last month that it would be “logistically impractical to do domestically,” but said it would be up to government to direct it.

Cumbersome for airlines

“Even if we decided that was something we wanted to do, that would be incredibly cumbersome to do inside the United States,” American Airlines Group Inc. CEO Doug Parker told the New York Times. International flights have sufficient layover times and checkpoints to administer the measure, but “it wouldn’t be physically possible to do without enormous delays in the airline system,” he said.

He said he doubted whether airline safety would be enhanced by a vaccine requirement. “Requiring vaccinations to travel and not requiring vaccinations to do anything else around the country isn’t something we’re looking to do,” Parker said.

Delta Air Lines Inc. Chief Executive Ed Bastian told WNYW-TV in New York in August that “the logistical challenge of getting vaccination paperwork and understanding exemptions, and who could travel and who wouldn’t, I think would cause a massive crimp on the operations.”

Airlines for America, an industry group, said in a statement that carriers have implemented several safety measures already, and that rising vaccination rates overall are another layer of protection. Its statement declined to specifically say if it supported or opposed a vaccine mandate.

Choice of airlines

Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said transmission on airplanes is rare -- though risks persist, including in airports -- but that it’s important for airlines to go as far as possible. He’s started flying United more because they have announced they will require employee vaccinations.

“I think I would also favor airlines in which all passengers were vaccinated or tested,” he said in an email.

The Biden administration is actively considering requiring vaccinations for international travelers, though that is likely not imminent, with vaccines still scarce in most countries. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Aug. 30 that the U.S. was weighing “potentially strengthening testing protocols for international travel” and whether to require that “foreign nationals who come to the United States are fully vaccinated.” She said no decision had been made.

On Thursday, Psaki echoed Zients in declining to rule out any future move for domestic travel.

“We are always looking at more we can do to protect and save lives,” she said. “Obviously he made a significant and bold announcement yesterday, so I don’t have anything to predict or preview for you but we’ll continue to look for ways to save more lives.”