Mnuchin told Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo that it was “too hard to tell at this point” whether international flights will resume this year before urging Americans to use the pandemic to travel by car as an alternative.
“But this is a great time for people to explore America,” he said. “A lot of people haven’t seen many parts of America. I wish I could get back on the road soon.”
Mnuchin said there would likely be exemptions for business travelers who need to fly outside of the country.
“The president’s also looking about ways to stimulate travel. We want people to travel safely — to be able to visit places safely,” he said. “So as the economy opens up, I think you’ll see demand coming back . . . Our priority is opening the domestic economy.”
Mnuchin’s comments contradict the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which cautioned against any unnecessary travel.
“Travel increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19,” the agency warns. “CDC recommends you stay home as much as possible, especially if your trip is not essential, and practice social distancing especially if you are at higher risk of severe illness.”
Heather Timmons, the Washington economics editor at Reuters, pointed out that the country was unprepared to handle such travel as the summer months approach.
“The US leads the world in COVID deaths and has no national rules for testing, tracing, distancing, or keeping yourself safe while you travel,” she tweeted. “Rental car companies, hotel chains, etc are mostly making up new cleaning/safety protocols on their own.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said last month that travel can only resume “if we do the things that we need to do to prevent the resurgence.”
“When infections start to rear their heads again,” he told CBS News, “we have to have it in place a very aggressive and effective way to identify, isolate, contract trace and make sure we don’t have those spikes we have now.”
While health experts warn against the road trips Mnuchin prescribed, it is unclear how air travel will bounce back once the health crisis subsides. Airlines around the world are projected to lose up to $314 billion this year. Passenger traffic is down 95% since the pandemic began, and airline executives say it could be “two to three years” before the industry recovers, Axios reported.
Airlines recently imposed requirements for passengers to wear masks on flights and are not booking certain seats. These restrictions may just be the beginning.
“9/11 changed travel completely with added security checks and longer check-in times,” Shashank Nigam, airline consultant and SimpliFlying founder, said in a blog post. “The impact of COVID-19 on air travel will be even more far-reaching.”
Famed investor Warren Buffett on Sunday announced that his Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate had recently dumped its stakes in all “big four” U.S. airlines after he was told “not to fly.”
“Our airline position was a mistake,” he said. “Berkshire is worth less today because I took that position than if I hadn’t.”
Buffett said he ended up “selling them at far lower prices than we paid,” because he worried there were “too many planes” to meet demand.
“The world has changed for the airlines,” he said. “The future is much less clear to me about how the business will turn out.”