In response to the rapidly spreading Omicron variant of the coronavirus, the US government has tightened its testing requirements for inbound international air travellers, and extended the federal mask mandate.

“Early next week, the United States will tighten pre-departure testing protocols by requiring all inbound international travellers to test within one day of departure globally, regardless of nationality or vaccination status,” the White House writes in a fact sheet published on 2 December.

“This tighter testing timeline provides an added degree of public health protection as scientists continue to assess the Omicron variant.”

The previous rule had required a negative test within three days of departure to the US.

United Covid testing EWR_16Nov2020

Source: United Airlines

US government tightens Covid testing rules for inbound international passengers

In addition, the federal mask mandate – requiring travellers to wear face coverings to mitigate the spread of the virus - has also been extended through 18 March 2022. It was previously set to expire on 18 January.

“The administration will continue to require masking during international or other public travel – as well as in transportation hubs such as airports or indoor bus terminals – through March 18 as we continue to battle Covid-19 this winter,” the fact sheet reads.

The government adds that non-compliance with these requirements will result in a minimum fine of $500 and up to $3,000 for repeat offenders.

It comes almost a week after the US government stopped entry to foreign nationals arriving from eight countries in southern Africa as the Omicron virus was identified in the region. Canada and the European Union introduced similar travel restrictions. 

On 2 December, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said that there are currently two known cases of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 in the United States. Almost 30 other countries have said they have identified cases with these mutations.

Last month, the US government lifted its blanket entry ban for fully vaccinated visitors from more than 30 countries, including most of continental Europe, the UK, India, Brazil and South Africa. That ban had been in place since March 2020.