CDC issues sweeping mask mandate for planes, public transportation in U.S.

Clay Curtis
January 31, 2021

It follows an executive order issued by President Biden on January 21, which required passengers to wear face coverings during interstate travel.

"Requiring masks will help us control this pandemic and aid in reopening the American economy", said Dr. Marty Cetron, a CDC official.

Exemptions to mask-wearing are allowed for people eating, drinking or taking medication, as well as those communicating with the hearing-impaired. Children under the age of two won't be required to wear coverings, and neither will anyone with a disability who can not safely wear a mask.

"Testing does not eliminate all risk, but when combined with a period of staying at home and everyday precautions like wearing masks and social distancing, it can make travel safer, healthier, and more responsible by reducing spread on planes, in airports, and at destinations", CDC Director Robert R. Redfield said.

Biden's executive order issued January 21 already mandated masks on certain modes of public transportation such as commercial aircraft, trains and ferries.

View the full travel order here. "Masks are most likely to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when they are widely and consistently used by all people in public settings".

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In addition, transportation operators have to ensure that every passenger is wearing a mask while boarding and during the journey. Masks can also be briefly removed during identity checks.

Also, a footnote in the order clarified that CDC reserves the right to enforce this order through criminal penalties.

The FAA has previously deferred to airlines on masks, and administrator Stephen Dickson told senators at a June hearing "we do not plan to provide an enforcement specifically on that issue".

The different approaches by the Trump White House and the CDC toward masks led to regular clashes and a decline in confidence in the CDC, for many years one of the nation's most trusted federal agencies.

Airlines already require masks and have banned more than 2,000 passengers for refusing to wear one.

It is unclear to what extent the FAA will rely on its existing framework for punishing unruly passengers.

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