White House won’t rule out vax mandate for domestic travel

Biden administration officials declined to be drawn Friday about whether Americans will soon need to present proof of COVID-19 vaccination to travel domestically — but did not rule such a requirement out.

“We’re not taking any measures off the table,” White House coronavirus response team coordinator Jeff Zients said during a briefing, when asked if the administration had “ruled out” ever implementing vaccine or testing requirements for domestic flights.

Hours later, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was also asked if President Biden was considering mandating vaccinations to fly domestically.

“We are always looking at more we can do to protect and save lives,” Psaki responded. “Obviously, he made a significant and bold announcement yesterday, so I don’t have anything to preview — predict or preview for you, but we’ll continue to look for ways to save more lives.”

She was referring to Biden’s announcement Thursday that businesses with 100 employees or more would have to require that staff either get vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested weekly — or face heavy fines. The president also directed the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to double fines levied against travelers who refuse to wear masks.

Meanwhile, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) announced Thursday that he would introduce legislation requiring travelers to present proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of boarding a domestic flight or traveling on Amtrak trains. The bill would also impose the same vaccinate-or-test mandate announced by Biden Thursday on airport and Amtrak employees.

The White House
GOP governors have criticized the White House for illegally forcing large companies to mandate vaccination requirements.
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A COVID-19 vaccine card.
COVID-19 vaccination documentation such as a passport is already required to visit indoor venues in New York City.

“Requiring airport and Amtrak travelers and employees to provide a proof of COVID vaccine or negative test is just common sense,” Beyer said in a statement. “These are easy steps we can take to make travel safer, as companies like United have already demonstrated with responsible policy changes.

“Americans want a return to normal that includes traveling for business or pleasure,” Beyer added, “and Congress can help make people comfortable traveling again by putting basic requirements in place that prevent the spread of Covid.”

Travelers wear masks at a security checkpoint in the main terminal of Denver International Airport in Denver, Colorado on August 24, 2021.
Travelers wear masks at a security checkpoint in the main terminal of Denver International Airport in Denver, Colorado on August 24, 2021.

Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va
Rep. Don Beyer argues United Airlines has already implemented successful vaccine mandates.

Republicans have reacted angrily to the vaccine requirements, accusing the Biden administration of an unconstitutional overreach of power. That criticism grew louder after White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain retweeted MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle, who wrote Thursday: “OSHA doing this vaxx mandate as an emergency workplace safety rule is the ultimate work-around [sic] for the Federal govt to require vaccinations.”

Amid accusations that Klain had said “the quiet part out loud,” Psaki tried to defuse the controversy Friday when she as asked in a briefing if the business vaccinate-or-test rule really was a “workaround.”

“Well, this is a tool, a step that, again, there’s legal authority for based on a 50-year-old law, and one that we took action on because the president wanted to use every lever at his disposal to protect more people and save more lives,” Psaki said.

“But, no, it’s not — we don’t have the ability to tell every American, ‘You have to be vaccinated,’” she continued. “There’s a means of encouraging it, of mandating it through certain — through certain pathways, and that’s exactly what we’ve done.”

Psaki also confirmed in the same briefing that illegal immigrants are not required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, responding to a question about the matter with a curt “That’s correct” before moving on.