ASTA Reacts to Executive Order on COVID-19 Safety in Travel

Last week, President Joe Biden announced his “Executive Order on Promoting COVID-19 Safety in Domestic and International Travel.” In order “to save lives and allow all Americans, including the millions of people employed in the transportation industry, to travel and work safely,” the order reads, Biden implemented such public health measures as mandating a mask on certain modes of transportation and requiring proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test prior to entry in the U.S.

Here’s what you need to know:

According to the executive order, masks are to be worn in compliance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, which includes in or on: airports; commercial aircraft; trains, public maritime vessels, including ferries; intercity bus services; and “all forms of public transportation as defined in section 5302 of title 49, United States Code.”

In an update to its members at the end of last week, the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) says “it supports a mandate and has been calling for it since July 2020. It also calls on the Secretary of Transportation (who has yet to be confirmed) to consult with other agencies and ‘promptly provide... recommendations concerning how [its] respective agencies may impose additional public health measures for domestic travel.’”

The executive order also reaffirms the CDC’s requirement to produce proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test prior to entry and the requirement to comply with other applicable CDC guidelines concerning international travel, including recommended periods of self-quarantine or self-isolation after entry into the United States. It does say, however, that the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), including through the Director of CDC, and in coordination with the Secretary of Transportation, shall within two weeks “assess the CDC order.” Potential updates to the rule include the timing and types of COVID-19 tests to satisfy the requirement, the feasibility of alternative and sufficiently protecting public health measures, such self-isolating upon arrival, measures to prevent fraud and more.

In a letter previously sent to then-CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, ASTA requested several modifications to that January 12 order by the CDC. At the time, ASTA said, the order “will create a number of challenges for our members, ranging from ensuring that clients can obtain testing in-destination without disrupting their return trip to the implications of a positive test (or a false positive) while abroad to a general chilling effect on future bookings.” Requested changes included delaying the order’s effective date from January 26 to “at least February 28” to allow airlines to train frontline staff, that the CDC—and not airlines or aircraft operators—be responsible for initiating the waiver process, that a “test-on-arrival” system be considered and more.

Biden’s executive order also called for the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of HHS, the Secretary of Transportation and the Secretary of Homeland Security, “to consult with foreign governments, the World Health Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Air Transport Association and any other relevant stakeholders to establish guidelines for public health measures associated with safe international travel.” Such guidelines, according to the order, “should address quarantine, testing, COVID-19 vaccination, follow-up testing and symptom-monitoring, air filtration requirements, environmental decontamination standards, and contact tracing.”

In its member update, ASTA noted “this kind of international harmonization will take time but is key to fully restarting international travel,” which it told media on a call earlier in the month.

ASTA added: “Of the items above, we can say with certainty that the mask mandate and the CDC’s January 12 order will go into effect (though small tweaks are possible). What the other items will ultimately look like—quarantine requirements, international rules, etc.—remains to be seen and will take time to develop with the new administration just coming in.”

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