Congressional Democrats ask Biden to impose vaccine mandate for air travel

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) joined 35 House Democrats in asking the president to impose vaccine restrictions ahead of the holiday season, as polls show a majority of Americans would support the policy.

A bicameral group of Democrats in Congress is calling on President Joe Biden to impose COVID-19 vaccine or testing requirements for domestic air travelers, amid fears of a winter surge heading into the holiday season.

"This is a necessary and long overdue step toward ensuring all Americans feel safe and confident while traveling and reduce the chances of yet another devastating winter surge," the 36 members of Congress, led by Reps. Don Beyer (D-VA) and Richie Torres (D-NY), and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), wrote. "As you continue to work tirelessly to finally end this pandemic, we ask that you ensure vaccine protocol is in place for domestic air travel so that every opportunity has been taken to get eligible Americans vaccinated as quickly as possible."

The letter, dated Nov. 11 but made public on Friday, follows a bill introduced by Feinstein in September which would require the federal government to impose such a mandate. Beyer and Torres have also introduced similar bills in the House, though none have received enough support to advance through the legislative process.

The letter comes as officials are warning of rising COVID cases in winter months, with the cold weather forcing Americans indoors, where the virus is more able to spread. Cases are already up in several states in the Northeast and Mountain West, despite high vaccination rates in some of the harder-hit states.

Experts have predicted that this year's surge will likely be different than other recent spikes, with widespread COVID inoculations leading to fewer deaths overall. Still, they've cautioned against relaxing mitigation measures like mask mandates too soon.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Biden's chief medical advisor, has said that he supports the idea of a vaccine mandate for air travel.

"I would support that," he told The Skimm in September. "If you want to get on a plane and travel, then you should be vaccinated." Still, he told CNN in October that he didn't expect such a mandate to happen "immediately," and has stressed that while he's supportive of the policy, he's not proposing it himself.

Asked whether Biden had received the letter and his thoughts on the Democrats' request, a spokesman for the White House did not immediately respond. Asked about their stance on the policy in a September White House briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki said that "we haven't taken options off the table" but otherwise declined to weigh in further

A wide majority of Americans say they support requiring vaccines for domestic air travel, polls show. In October, a Morning Consult poll found 64% of American adults would support COVID vaccine or testing requirements on flights, and 56% said they'd prefer to fly with an airline requiring all employees and passengers to be vaccinated.

As with other pandemic restrictions, however, opinions are split along partisan lines: 80% of Democrats say they'd support an airline vaccine requirement, compared to only 44% of Republicans, according to the Morning Consult poll.

In November, the Biden administration put forth new restrictions on international travelers coming to the United States by plane, requiring most non-citizens over 18 to show proof of vaccination before boarding their flights and unvaccinated Americans to show proof of a negative COVID test. The Government of Canada also recently announced that it would require all travelers departing from Canadian airports to be fully vaccinated.

Yet the U.S. airline industry has come out in force against vaccine requirements for air travelers, arguing enforcement would be difficult to implement and could lead to long lines in airports.

"We don't see any reason to mandate vaccination in the domestic market," Willie Walsh, the director general of the International Air Transport Association, told a gathering of hundreds of airline executives in October, according to the New York Times.

Airline officials have also argued that the air on planes is "safer than the air in a surgical operating room," a reference to a Department of Defense study that examined the risk of aerosol viral transmission in airline cabins versus other environments. Further studies have confirmed that air travel is relatively low-risk, but only when everyone is properly wearing a mask.

A number of top health groups have come out in support of vaccine requirements for air travel. The Infectious Diseases Society of America, the American Public Health Association, the Big Cities Health Coalition, the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, the American Society for Microbiology, and the American Association of Immunologists all voiced support for Feinstein's bill, according to a release from the senator's office.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.