Biden administration extends mask mandate for public transit through March

The Biden administration has extended a mask mandate for public transportation, airlines and rail travel through March 18, the White House announced on Thursday.

The initial mandate was set to expire on Jan. 18, but reports of the continued spread of the omicron coronavirus variant have prompted health officials to implement new guidelines aimed and curbing the spread of the new strain. 

Fines for those who violate the mandates will continue to be doubled from their initial levels, the White House said, adding that a minimum fee of $500 and fines of up to $3,000 will be charged to repeat offenders. 

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Another mandate announced by the White House includes requiring all travelers to the U.S. to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within one day of boarding their flights, regardless of nationality or vaccination status.

The tightening of testing for those entering the country will begin next week and is down from the current three days for those who have been vaccinated.

The new directive is part of President Joe Biden’s new winter plan for combating COVID-19 and the new omicron variant, which also includes a requirement for private insurers to cover the cost of at-home COVID-19 tests and paid time off for federal employees to get a booster dose.

"The actions I'm announcing are ones that all Americans can rally behind and should unite us in the fight against COVID-19 and they come from a position of strength," Biden said in remarks from the National Institutes of Health outside Washington. "We are better positioned than we were a year ago to fight COVID-19."

In updating its travel options, the White House has shelved tougher options, like requiring post-arrival testing or requiring quarantines upon arrival in the U.S. It has not yet moved to require domestic U.S. travelers to be vaccinated or get tested, as officials believe such a requirement would be immediately mired in litigation.

"We base our decisions on the advice of the health and medical experts, what’s going to be most effective and what we can implement," press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier Thursday. "What’s most implementable, so we look at a range of factors as we make decisions about what steps we can put in place."

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Much remains unknown about the omicron variant, including whether it is more contagious, whether it makes people more seriously ill and whether it can thwart the vaccines.

Still, the Biden administration has come to view widespread adoption of booster shots as its most effective tool for combating COVID-19 this winter amid its ongoing spread. Medical experts say boosters provide enhanced and more enduring protection against COVID-19, including new variants.

About 100 million Americans are eligible for boosters under current U.S. policy, with more becoming eligible every day. Convincing those who have already been vaccinated to get another dose, officials believe, will be far easier than vaccinating the roughly 43 million adult Americans who haven't gotten a shot despite widespread public pressure campaigns to roll up their sleeves.

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And while Biden's vaccination-or-testing requirement for workers at larger employers has been held up by legal challenges, the president on Thursday will renew his call for businesses to move ahead and impose their own mandates on workers so they can stay open without outbreaks.

Kelly Hayes contributed to this story. It was reported from Los Angeles.