The CDC Won't Require COVID-19 Testing for U.S. Domestic Travel. Here's Why

They also recommend all travelers get tested before their trips. (Wait, what?)

Man getting a COVID 19 test at the airport

Mario Tama / Getty Images

After revealing last week that COVID-19 testing for domestic U.S. travel was being considered, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced it’s not going to happen after all—even though they recommend all domestic travelers get tested before their flights. 

“At this time, CDC is not recommending required point of departure testing for domestic travel,” the CDC said to CNN. “As part of our close monitoring of the pandemic, in particular the continued spread of variants, we will continue to review public health options for containing and mitigating spread of COVID-19 in the travel space.” 

Back on Jan. 26, 2021, the CDC’s new rule requiring international passengers to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test or recovery from a previous infection before boarding flights back to the U.S. kicked off until further notice. Less than two weeks later, and shortly after the Biden administration took over, officials announced that these requirements were under consideration for U.S. domestic travel as well. 

Within days, on Feb. 12, CEOs from American, United, Southwest, Alaska, and JetBlue logged onto a virtual meeting with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky. (Notably, Delta Air Lines—the last remaining U.S. airline still blocking middle seats—did not join.) 

While airlines typically favor testing requirements when it comes to international flights, though mostly as a method for avoiding mandatory quarantines, they made it clear that they were not on board with the implementation of domestic testing requirements. The big qualm? That it would kick out the crutches of an already struggling industry. And according to Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst and principal at Atmosphere Research, their fears aren’t unfounded. 

In a recent study of over 2,000 travelers, Harteveldt said only 38 percent of people who said they were thinking of traveling domestically would go ahead and get tested beforehand if it was required. A whopping 53 percent said that a domestic testing requirement would deter them from taking a trip (the remaining 9 percent were undecided). 

Interestingly, when the CDC mentioned they wouldn’t be mandating any domestic pre-flight COVID-19 testing, CNN says they also recommended that people do not travel—but that whoever does should get tested beforehand. "If someone must travel, they should get tested with a viral test 1-3 days before the trip," the agency said to CNN. "After travel, getting tested with a viral test 3-5 days post-travel and staying home and self-quarantining for seven days, even if test results are negative, is a recommended public health measure to reduce risk." The latter's logic seems to directly contrast with their decision not to require testing, so what gives? 

“There's a big difference between should [get tested] and must [get tested],” Harteveldt said. “Saying, you should get tested before you take a trip is a compromise—it is a request. Saying you must get tested is an order—it is an edict.” He continued by explaining, citing Atmosphere’s recent study, that if testing were mandatory, many people thinking of taking a trip wouldn’t. 

In other words, Harteveldt said, “the CDC caved” to the pleas of the travel industry. “But the CDC’s intentions were certainly honorable; trying to keep the traveling public safe and reduce the risk of anyone who is sick traveling. Now, that's not going to happen—except for destinations like Hawaii, where pre-travel testing is mandatory because they are an island-based state. There is probably going to be no other requirement for pre-travel testing for domestic travel within the U.S.”

Hopefully, with the promise of ramped-up vaccine efforts, the hot button issue of domestic pre-flight testing will soon be a moot point. Until then, masks are still required at all times in U.S. airports and on flights, with penalties for rule-breakers.