The Transportation Security Administration's face mask requirement for airports, planes, buses and rail systems is set to be extended once again, officials told NBC News Thursday, but how long will it continue and what should travelers know during this spring break rush?
Here's a breakdown.
How long will the TSA mask mandate continue for?
A White House official and a TSA official said in a statement the agency will extend the masking guidelines for one month, with the expiration now set for April 18.
"During that time, CDC will work with government agencies to help inform a revised policy framework for when, and under what circumstances, masks should be required in the public transportation corridor," the administration official said in a statement. "This revised framework will be based on the COVID-19 community levels, risk of new variants, national data, and the latest science. We will communicate any updates publicly if and/or when they change."
Following two extensions of its mandate, the TSA mask mandate had been scheduled to expire on March 18.
What should travelers know?
The agency put out a release Wednesday ahead of busy spring break travel, stating "the mask requirement remains in place and TSA will continue to assess the duration of the requirement in consultation with CDC."
“TSA’s collaboration with industry and federal partners has been instrumental throughout this pandemic, and now we are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel as demonstrated by the rapid recovery of the travel industry,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske said in a statement. “We are prepared and ready for a busy spring, and are doing our part to ensure the traveling public is safe and secure by continuing to deploy new technologies within the checkpoint that enhance security, reduce physical contact and improve the traveling experience. We just ask travelers to do their part by being respectful to each other and those who work in the transportation sector – from our officers to airport workers and flight crew.”
The agency noted the following 10 tips travelers should follow:
Tip 1: Continue to wear a face mask. The mask requirement remains in place and TSA will continue to assess the duration of the requirement in consultation with CDC.
Tip 2: Follow the rule that limits liquids. Gels and aerosols are limited to 3.4 ounces or less in carry-on baggage. There is an exception for hand sanitizer, which has a temporary 12-ounce limit. The general definition for this rule is that if you can spill it, spread it, spray it, pump it or pour it, then the carry-on quantity is limited.
Tip 3: Pack food in a clear plastic bag. If you plan to travel with food, it is a best practice to pack your food items in a clear plastic bag and place that clear plastic bag into your carry-on bag. When you get to the security checkpoint, remove and place the clear bag containing your food into the bin to reduce the opportunity for cross-contamination between the food and bins.
Tip 4: Leave prohibited items at home. To reduce the likelihood of physical contact with TSA officers at the checkpoint, be familiar with the TSA prohibited items list for carry-on bags. Travelers can check for prohibited items by using the “What Can I Bring?” page on TSA.gov and by downloading the free MyTSA app, which has a helpful “What Can I Bring?” feature.
Tip 5: Do not bring your firearm to a security checkpoint. Airline passengers can fly with firearms only in checked baggage. All firearms must be properly packed and declared with your airline at check-in. Contact your airline for additional guidance. Firearms at TSA checkpoints represent an unnecessary risk and an expensive mistake, as you may be subject to a civil penalty.
Tip 6: Give yourself plenty of time. Travel volumes are expected to be higher than they have been and some passengers may be traveling for the first time in quite a while. Extra time may be needed for parking, rental car and airline check-in counters, and at the checkpoint.
Tip 7: Empty your pockets when you get to the checkpoint. Place items inside your carry-on bag instead of into a bin to reduce touchpoints and not leave anything behind.
Tip 8: Listen for guidance from TSA officers. They may be providing information on new technologies that help reduce touchpoints and make for a more streamlined and convenient passenger experience.
Tip 9: Contact TSA with your questions. Tweet your questions and comments to @AskTSA or via Facebook Messenger, weekdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST. You can also call the TSA Contact Center at 866-289-9673 from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. EST or 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends and holidays.
Tip 10: Enroll now in TSA PreCheck®. “Travel with Ease” by enrolling in TSA PreCheck and avoid removing shoes, belts, liquids, laptops and light jackets. Most new enrollees receive a Known Traveler Number within five days, and membership lasts for five years.
Why is the mask mandate staying in place?
The requirement has remained in place even after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a shift in COVID-19 guidance late last month, saying most Americans are safe without a mask in indoor settings.
It was a dramatic shift from the previous guidance, which recommended masks in counties with substantial or high transmission, a category that covered the vast majority of the country. According to a metrics update last week, more than 90% of Americans live in areas of low or medium COVID-19 transmission, meaning masks aren't recommended.
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The CDC currently advises masks only in areas listed as having high transmission.
Despite the change in guidance, the TSA opted not to lift the federal requirement.
"The mask requirement remains in place and we will continue to assess the duration of the requirement in consultation with CDC," a TSA official said late last month as the CDC change was announced.
Trade groups such as the U.S. Travel Association, American Hotel and Lodging Association and Airlines for America sent a letter to White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zeintz following the CDC announcement, urging the Biden administration to lift the mask mandate by its planned date and end other COVID travel restrictions.
In the letter, the groups said ending travel advisories, repealing the federal mask mandate and working with other countries to end travel restrictions are crucial to restoring the U.S. economy and workforce.
"Effective, risk-based policies can be reinstated at any time if new variants of concern emerge or the public health situation deteriorates," the letter read, in part. "It is now time for the administration to lead the country towards a new normal for travel and on a faster path to a full and even economic recovery."