By Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics
On his first full day in office, President Biden signed an executive order requiring passengers to wear face coverings during interstate travel. Starting February 1 at 11:59 pm EST, travelers and commuters will be required to wear face masks on nearly all forms of public transportation as part of a sweeping new order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
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The order will require masks to be worn by “all passengers on public conveyances” traveling into or within the United States, including airplanes, ships, ferries, trains, subways, buses, taxis and ride-shares. Coverings will also be required at transportation hubs like airports, bus terminals, and train or subway stations. While the logistics of policing and enforcement have yet to be determined, the overall goal is to protect essential workers and passengers by providing a safer traveling environment.
Why a Federal Mandate Is Needed
A federal mandate is necessary because COVID-19 restrictions vary by state, which further complicates public health issues. Restrictions vary from indoor capacity requirements for public gathering places to self-quarantining when one arrives in a new state to stay-at-home orders.
In addition, some states require travelers to have a negative COVID-19 test in order to exit quarantine status. This requirement can make any mode of travel complicated, especially if one is traveling to or through multiple states.
What Factors Created the Need for a Federal Mandate?
While a return to “normal” is not likely any time soon, it’s important to identify what factors brought us to employ a federal mask mandate. Passengers have largely avoided all forms of travel in 2020, with the exception of brief spikes during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
Southwest, American and JetBlue Airlines reported that they lost a combined $3.5 billion in the final three months of the year, and 2021 is off to a grim start. Hopefully, a mask mandate can reassure passengers that it is safe to travel on public transportation.
The new mask mandate says airlines and other operators must “at the earliest opportunity” remove any passenger who refuses to comply with the mask order. Anyone violating the order could face potential criminal penalties, but the CDC suggested that civil penalties may be more likely.
What Are Acceptable Face Coverings?
Passengers on public transportation will be required to follow the new mask rule while “boarding, disembarking, and for the duration of travel” on planes, buses, subways, trains, ferries and ride-share vehicles. The new order states that masks must completely cover a traveler’s nose and mouth.
However, face shields, scarves and bandanas are not permissible forms of face coverings on public transportation. This edict is confusing, since recent reports from national health expert Dr. Anthony Fauci emphasized “doubling up” by wearing a combination of masks and additional coverings.
Public Transportation Serves an Intergenerational Need
Public transportation fulfills an intergenerational need and a wide range of passengers. The goal of the mask mandate is to protect citizens, keep children in school and contain the spread of COVID-19 cases.
“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. Only time will tell.