By: Ivana Ramirez
Emboldened under the new presidential administration, the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services implemented a mask mandate on all United States public transportation services.
According to the report, “intrastate transmission of the virus has led to—and continues to lead to—interstate and international spread of the virus, particularly on public conveyances and in travel hubs, where passengers who may themselves be traveling only within their state or territory commonly interact with others traveling between states or territories or internationally.”
The mandate, which makes it a federal crime not to wear masks on transportation within or into the United States, went into effect on February 2 at midnight.
While state mandates will continue to vary, including the 14 states that do not have statewide mandates, the federal law places much of the responsibility on operators to “use best efforts to ensure that any person on the conveyance wears a mask when boarding, disembarking, and for the duration of travel”, according to the announcement.
In order to maintain their due diligence, conveyance operators must board only those persons who wear masks; instruct persons that Federal law requires wearing a mask on the conveyance and failure to comply constitutes a violation of Federal law; monitor persons onboard the conveyance for anyone who is not wearing a mask and seeking compliance from such persons; and at the earliest opportunity, disembark any person who refuses to comply.
The order defines transportation systems as “an aircraft, train, vessel . . . or other means of transport, including military.” While it initially reads definitive in nature, the mandate does not require masks for those who have a medical exemption, are under the age of two, or for brief periods of eating and drinking.
The ruling follows President Biden’s federal mask mandate on all federal properties and lands. The ruling makes it a requirement for all federal employees to wear a face-covering at federal courthouses, national parks, national monuments, and state capitol buildings.
Biden told reporters during a briefing in the Oval Office on January 20 that, “[the federal mandate] is requiring, as I said all along, where I have authority, mandating masks be worn, social distancing be kept on federal property.”
Both the CDC mask mandate and the federal mask mandate were passed in light of a new variant of the coronavirus, which is determined to be more virulent than the existing strain and possibly resistant to recently developed vaccines.
“Requiring masks on our transportation systems will protect Americans and provide confidence that we can once again travel safely even during this pandemic,” said the 11-page order signed by Marty Cetron, director for CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine.
In order to uphold this standard of safety, operators and customers alike may offer an alternative to wearing a mask. For example, “operators of transportation hubs may impose requirements, or conditions for carriage, on persons requesting an exemption from the requirement to wear a mask, including medical consultation by a third party, medical documentation by a licensed medical provider, and/or other information as determined by the operator, as well as require evidence that the person does not have COVID-19 such as a negative result from a SARS-CoV-2 viral test or documentation of recovery from COVID-19.”
Despite these exceptions, the mandate clearly defines utilizing a mask as “to wear a mask over the nose and mouth.” This provision likely results from the swaths of people intentionally or mistakenly letting their masks fall below their nose, negating the efficacy of wearing a mask in the first place.
Common transportation systems, such as Uber, Lyft, or airlines, will likely be among the most affected by both the CDC order and federal executive order. In fact, a U.S. airline group told Biden this month that carriers had had to bar “thousands of passengers” from future flights for failing to comply with airline mask policies.
While public transit systems may become more stringent, the CDC has suggested that civil penalties would be more likely than criminal charges for failure to comply. The order will be enforced by the Transportation Security Administration and federal, state, and local agencies. Intuitively, though also explicitly included in the mandate, individuals traveling by themselves in personal vehicles will not be subject to the order.
Roger Dow, president, and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association said that he does not have any issues with the order. “I don’t see a big problem because it’s been in place already,” Dow said. “Every plane you’ve been on for the past six weeks they must tell you ten times ‘keep your mask on, make sure you’re wearing it properly.’ I think it’s a good thing.”
While much international travel requires a negative Covid test to board, the CDC is still considering requiring negative tests for domestic flights.
Ivana Ramirez is a gap-year first year at Yale University. She is originally from Greenville, SC, and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
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