President Joe Biden has promised a mask mandate on flights, trains and buses for months, and on Thursday, he made it reality.
“Today, we’ll be signing an additional executive action to extend masking requirements on interstate travel, like on trains, planes and buses,” he said during a televised address Thursday outlining his administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new travel-specific order will require people to wear masksin airports, on certain modes of public transportation, including many trains, airplanes and intercity buses, according to White House officials.
“And in light of the new COVID variants that we’re learning about, we are instituting now a new measure for individuals flying into the United States from other countries,” Biden said. “In addition to wearing masks, everyone flying to the United States from another country will need to test before they depart and quarantine when they arrive in America.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had previously announced the international testing requirement to begin Jan. 26, but a quarantine element would be new. Biden did not specify how long new arrivals would have to quarantine, though the CDC has recently shortened its recommended period from 14 to 10 days.
However, there are still unanswered questions, including when the travel order will take effect and how the new mask rule will be enforced.
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Travel industry officials were buoyed by the new administration’s actions on COVID-19 prevention.
The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the nation’s largest flight attendants’ union, has been pushing for a mask mandate since April and said it welcomes Biden’s nationwide approaching to “crushing the virus.”
“Today’s executive action on a mask mandate for interstate travel, including airports and planes, will provide much needed back up for flight attendants and aviation workers on the frontlines,” national union president Sara Nelson said in a statement. “Masks are vitally important to the health of everyone onboard and an especially necessary safety measure in our workspace where proper social distancing is not an option.”
Airlines already require masks and ban passengers who don’t comply, but without a federal mandate, passenger cooperation is basically voluntary, he said. Even with the Federal Aviation Administration’s recent order that it will no longer give warnings to misbehaving travelers.
“Suppose we had the same method for (in-flight) seats belts or smoking?” he said. “We said, ‘Well, we recommend you have seat belts. We recommend you don’t smoke.’ How would that work? It would be chaotic.”
“It is a federal policy and you have two choices: comply or don’t fly,” he said.
United Airlines President Scott Kirby said 99.999% of the airline’s passengers obey in-flight rules.
“They appreciate the safety policies, they appreciate the mask policies,” he said.
He praised the airline’s gate agents and flight attendants for handling issues with those passengers who don’t comply but said the federal mask mandate is welcome.
“We appreciate the mask mandates that we expect to come out of the new administration,” Kirby said in an interview Thursday on CNBC.
Airlines, unions and consumer advocates have been calling for a federal mask mandate since the early months of the coronavirus pandemic but found no support from former President Donald Trump’s administration.
As recently as October, a FlyersRights proposal for mask mandates on planes and at airports was rejected by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Among the reasons cited: most airlines already have mask policies and the department’s view is that there should be “no more regulations than necessary.”
U.S. airlines began requiring masks in early May to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 as travelers began flying again. They tightened their rules a few months later, restricting the types of face coverings that can be worn on planes and warning passengers who don’t comply that they will be banned from flying with that airline again during the pandemic.
Airline workers – especially gate agents and flight attendants – have found themselves in the role of mask police. To date, nearly 3,000 passengers have been banned from Delta, United, Frontier, Spirit, JetBlue, Alaska, Hawaiian and Allegiant airlines, according to the latest figures from airline representatives. The actual number is likely much higher since two of the country’s largest airlines, American and Southwest, don’t reveal how many passengers they have banned.
“Almost a year in, we still do not have basic federal safety requirements such as a mask mandate,” the flight attendants union said in a statement last week. “We’re eager to work with the Biden administration to protect aviation workers and passengers.”
During his address, Biden singled out masks as the “single best thing we can do,” prioritizing them over even COVID vaccines, which don’t take effect immediately. He quoted his experts as saying that if Americans wear masks until April, as many as 58,000 lives could be saved.
“Ultimately, our plan is based on unity and all of us acting as one nation,” he said.
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Contributing: Jayme Deerwester, Joey Garrison