By Kaitlan Collins, CNN
The Biden administration will extend existing requirements for travelers to wear masks on airplanes, buses, trains and boats, as well as in airports and other transportation hubs, through March to address concerns over the Omicron coronavirus variant.
In August, the Transportation Security Administration extended its US federal transportation mask mandate through January 18 “to minimize the spread of Covid-19 on public transportation” due to concerns at that time over the Delta variant.
The latest extension, first reported by Reuters, comes after the United States’ first confirmed case of the Omicron variant was identified in California. In a White House news briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the case was in an individual who had traveled from South Africa on November 22 — before travel restrictions were in place — and tested positive for Covid-19 on Monday.
Scientists are working to determine how transmissible the Omicron variant is, how sick it makes people and how well the current vaccines work against it. Until more information is available, the United States has restricted travel from South Africa and seven other countries.
On Monday, Biden called the variant “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” saying that “we’ll have to face this new threat just as we face those who have come before it.”
The President had first signed the order requiring masks for travelers shortly after taking office in January. While major US airlines had instituted their own mask requirements in spring 2020 in the absence of a federal rule, enforcing mask policies has largely fallen on flight attendants, some of whom have reported aggressive confrontations with passengers refusing to wear masks.
“If you break the rules, be prepared to pay,” Biden said in September in announcing that fines would double for those who don’t comply with the mask mandate. “And by the way, show some respect. The anger you see on television toward flight attendants and others doing their job is wrong. It’s ugly.”
This story has been updated with additional information Wednesday.
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CNN’s Paul LeBlanc contributed to this report.