Minnesotans planning to take their winter getaway in Mexico or other warm-weather countries this year will soon need a negative COVID-19 test result before being allowed back into the U.S.
Sun Country Airlines, the small carrier that built a business on shuttling Minnesotans to balmy climates during the coldest months, is now scrambling to prepare for the federal reporting requirements and to help its customers find COVID testing sites in foreign countries.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this week mandated air travelers present proof of a negative COVID test to airlines before boarding all flights into the U.S. in an effort to curb the arrival of new coronavirus variants spreading rapidly in the U.K., South Africa and increasingly around the world.
The requirement will complicate vacations for many international travelers — and add to the expense. In some countries, an individual test can cost more than $300.
Testing is one of the best ways to help control the spread of COVID-19, the CDC said, which has tasked the airlines with being the nation's gatekeepers.
Several of the major carriers, including Delta Air Lines, immediately offered customers the option to move up their international travel date to return before the new requirement becomes effective Jan. 26. So did Minnesota-based Sun Country.
But the short-term stakes are higher for the scrappy Sun Country, whose bread-and-butter customer is the Midwestern leisure traveler seeking respite from winter's biting chill.
While many of its customers head to Florida or other southern states, passengers flying to some of its most popular destinations, such as Cancun, Puerto Vallarta or Los Cabos, will need to present documented proof of a negative COVID test taken within three days of their return flight home.
Sun Country flights to Mexico and the Caribbean are currently running about 40 to 50% capacity with the March spring-break season, its busiest travel time of the year, still ahead.
"As we all know, policies around COVID-19 continue to rapidly evolve. Sun Country is committed to working with the CDC and our government partners to provide our guests the most up-to-date information," Greg Mays, chief operating officer, said in a statement. "Our team has been working around the clock to ensure we're operationally prepared for passenger attestation and reporting, as well as making sure we're able to accommodate travelers who encounter any questions or testing issues along the way."
The airline confirmed that all of its destinations affected by the CDC's order have readily available and accessible testing sites, with results within one hour at some locations and up to 72 hours at others.
"Travelers have the option to visit testing sites, and some labs will even come to the individual's hotel and conduct the test right there on site," a Sun Country spokeswoman said.
Sun Country has put together a list of clinics, labs and hospitals at all of its Caribbean and Central and South American destinations where Americans can get tested.
Executives for Delta — the largest airline at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, accounting for about 70% of passenger traffic — told analysts Thursday that it supports the CDC's testing requirement and is already seeing resorts at closer-in international destinations, like Mexico and the Caribbean, offer COVID testing as a part of their lodging package.
"I think it's absolutely the right thing to do for the long term for our industry. But it's going to create some short-term hiccups," Delta Chief Executive Ed Bastian told analysts Thursday.
"This is something that we — Delta — endorse, and I know our industry similarly endorses," he said. "But I think by having the testing protocols in place, it then gives confidence to the regulatory authorities to start to lift the [travel] bans, which is why we endorse the testing strategy."
The CDC requires that passengers present their negative test result to the airline. Sun Country said it will ask passengers to do so at the ticket counter before boarding the plane.
Some frequently asked questions about the CDC's new requirement:
How much do the tests cost?
Travelers should be prepared to pay for tests taken abroad. Rapid tests in Roatan, Honduras, for example, range $17 to $100 while PCR tests, which require an appointment, range from $225 to $347.
Does the CDC order apply to all international destinations?
U.S. territories are excluded from this requirement, including Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands.
Does this requirement apply to U.S. citizens?
Yes. It applies to all air passengers, ages 2 and over, traveling into the United States regardless of their citizenship.
When do I need to get tested and what kind of test do I need?
The CDC requires a viral test — an antigen or nucleic acid amplification — no more than three days before your flight to the U.S. departs. You must show the airline documentation of a negative result before your flight.
What if I recently recovered from COVID-19?
The CDC does not require proof of a negative COVID test for symptom-free passengers who recovered from the virus within the three months immediately proceeding travel. Instead, these passengers must present the airline with their positive viral test, dated within the past three months, and a doctor's note or letter from a public health official approving the passenger for travel.
What happens if I test positive?
A longer vacation — in isolation and at your own expense. Once you can provide a doctor's note confirming your recovery and clearing you for travel, along with proof of your original positive test result, the airline can permit you to board a U.S.-bound flight.
Do I need to get a test before leaving the United States?
The CDC recommends, but does not require, people to get a viral test one to three days before international travel. But some countries have their own restrictions, requiring proof of a negative COVID test or completion of other health screenings upon arrival.
Does this order apply to all flights?
Yes. It applies to all commercial, private or chartered flights into the U.S.
Does the testing requirement apply to aircraft crew members?
On-duty crew members are exempt.
What happens if my flight is delayed and it goes over the three-day limit for testing?
You'll have to get retested.
Do I still need proof of a negative test if I received the COVID-19 vaccine?
Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767