By Ceylan Yeginsu, Maria Cramer, Noah Weiland and Michael D. Shear
As coronavirus policies and masking rules around the world faded away in recent months, one major mandate remained in place: Travelers flying to the United States had to provide a negative test result before boarding their plane.
As of Sunday morning, that too was gone. On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was going to lift the requirement Sunday at 12:01 a.m. after officials determined that the widespread adoption of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 no longer makes it necessary.
In an agency release explaining her decision, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, also cited booster shots and the milder omicron variant, which she said had “generally caused less severe disease among those who are infected.”
The decision was met with joy in the travel industry, which for months has been lobbying the administration hard to get rid of the testing rule.
“It’s a Friday miracle,” said Marc Casto, chair of the board of the American Society of Travel Advisors, a trade group. “It’s huge. It’s monumental.”
The hard-hit travel industry is already in the middle of a comeback, but Casto said he believed dropping the mandate would lead to double-digit percentage increases in the number of people flying and staying in hotels abroad. American travelers had held off on overseas vacation plans because of the mandate, worried that they would be stuck in foreign countries if they discovered they were infected and would be forced to pay thousands of dollars in hotel fees and other expenses, he said. Conversely, international travelers to the United States faced the uncertainty of testing positive before their trips began. (International travelers to the United States will still be required to be fully vaccinated.)
The U.S. Travel Association, a trade group, projects that dropping the testing requirement will bring 5.4 million additional international visitors to the United States and $9 billion in additional travel spending through the end of the year.
The testing requirement was first introduced in January 2021, when fewer than 10% of Americans were vaccinated and new infections were reaching record levels.
In December 2021, amid heightened concerns about the omicron variant, the CDC tightened the rule by requiring that travelers present a negative test taken within 24 hours of departure. Previously, a test taken within three days was required.
The administration’s mask mandate, which required all passengers on planes and other forms of public transport to wear masks, was struck down in April by a federal judge appointed by former President Donald Trump.
The testing requirement was also unpopular with many travelers, who faced the prospect of getting stuck overseas after testing positive. The CDC recommends travelers isolate and delay travel for 10 days regardless of symptoms or a negative test taken within the isolation period. Some people who did not want to wait that long used a “backdoor” route, returning home via land borders with Canada and Mexico, which do not require a coronavirus test.
For President Joe Biden, the decision to drop the requirement is welcome news at a time when the administration is struggling on a series of fronts. The White House and top federal officials described the decision as a validation of the president’s efforts to aggressively combat the virus.
“This step is possible because of the progress we’ve made in our fight against COVID-19,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement Friday evening, adding that the administration “will not hesitate to reinstate a predeparture testing requirement, if needed later.”
New confirmed cases in the United States have been roughly flat at around 110,000 a day on average as of Thursday over the past two weeks, according to a New York Times database, after rising from lower than 30,000 a few months ago. Infections, though, are thought to be widely undercounted, as at-home test results are often not officially reported and many people with no or mild symptoms may not test at all. Death counts have been volatile in recent weeks but remain below 400 per day on average.
The CDC decision was important and overdue, said Dr. Luciana Borio, a former acting chief scientist at the Food and Drug Administration who also oversaw public health preparedness for the National Security Council. She said that federal scientists had to continue considering the goals of the pandemic response and how effective certain interventions are. Most transmission, she said, was occurring domestically.
“If the idea is to minimize the number of COVID cases in this country, the impact of entrance screening is negligible,” she said. “We are at a point where we have the tools to minimize morbidity and mortality associated with the virus.”
But the decision provoked criticism and alarm from other corners of the public health field.
Meegan Zikus, a bioethicist at Grand Valley State University in Michigan who is immunocompromised, said lifting the mandate “completely disregards the safety and well-being of people who are at high risk.”
“Lifting COVID testing for international travel entirely negates that there remains a worldwide pandemic,” she said. “The world is exhausted by the pandemic. Trying to pretend that it is over is destructive, ignorant and hurts those least able to protect themselves.”
But William Hanage, a public health researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that while the change could lead to some new infections in the United States, it would have a considerably smaller effect than other policy decisions, such as lifting mask mandates.
“Travel restrictions make sense when there is a big difference between prevalence and risk when you’re going between points A and B. If there isn’t a big difference, then they are not particularly valuable,” he said. “In many parts of the world, there is now less infection than in the U.S., and you are vastly more likely to be infected in a bar in New York City or elsewhere than you are in most random places overseas.”
The CDC continues to recommend testing for travel.
Some American travelers currently on trips abroad breathed a sigh of relief Friday. Lucia Torres, 39, who is booked to fly home to Florida from Spain on Tuesday with her husband, said she canceled some activities planned for the last days of her vacation because she was worried she would test positive before her flight home. She and her husband are vaccinated and boosted.
“When we booked our vacation we decided to take the risk, but we haven’t been able to completely relax because it’s always in our heads,” she said. “Now we don’t have to worry; I can book a massage, go to a party, do whatever people do on vacation.”