What You Need to Know Before Traveling During the Omicron Outbreak

There's a new variant in town, and with it, a new set of federally mandated travel requirements

Updated travel restrictions
Updated travel restrictions

It’s that time again! The one where we brief you on all of the latest travel rules and restrictions stemming from the discovery of yet another COVD-19 variant. Seen this movie, roll credits.

But seriously: the first case of the Omicron variant in the U.S. was confirmed in California on Wednesday, so, yeah, here’s everything you need to know.

To start, the existing federal mask mandate — which requires that a face mask be worn at airports, on planes, trains and all other manner of public transportation — is officially being extended through March 18. This will be the third extension of the mandate since its initial implementation on February (it was last set to expire on January 18).

“If you break the rules, be prepared to pay,” President Joe Biden said in September when asked about consequences should travelers failure to comply with the mask mandate. (Fines currently range anywhere from $500 to $3,000 for repeat offenders.)

“And by the way, show some respect. The anger you see on television toward flight attendants and others doing their job is wrong. It’s ugly,” he added.

The other big news is that, under this new umbrella, all international travelers to the U.S. will be required to show a negative test taken within one day of departure, regardless of vaccine status or country of origin. (The current rule calls for a negative test up to three days before departure.) To make this more feasible, the administration will sanction insurance companies to reimburse their customers for the cost of at-home tests (here’s a list of home tests approved for travel). For those without insurance, in a collective push to make them more universally available, rapid at-home tests will also will be distributed at community clinics and health centers.

“This tighter testing timeline provides an added degree of public health protection as scientists continue to assess the Omicron variant,” the White House said. The new test requirement will reportedly go into effect next week.

While that seems to be where the road ends for the time being, a senior administration official told reporters, “If additional measures are recommended, if additional measures can be implemented well and are effective, we won’t hesitate to take them.”

The good news is that this latest set of requirements, due to be announced by President Biden on Thursday afternoon, is far less stringent than anyone would have anticipated. That’s because, per the a report from the NY Post, officials have expressed doubt surrounding being able to effectively implement and uphold more aggressive measures after the mere suggestion sparked instant panic among frequent flyers.

So, what is the moral of the story? Don’t throw your face masks out just yet, be nice to flight attendants and be sure to keep a spare at-home rapid test in your carry-on. Luckily, they’re available on Amazon now. How fantastic.


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