In response to last week’s executive order from President Joseph Biden, on January 29, 2021, the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an order requiring face masks to be worn by all travelers on airplanes, ships, trains, subways, buses, taxis, and ride-shares and at transportation hubs like airports, bus or ferry terminals, train and subway stations and seaports. The order takes effect at 11:59 pm EST Monday, February 1.

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 The CDC order will make failing to wear a mask a violation of federal law that could make it easier for flight attendants and others to enforce. People violating the order could potentially face criminal penalties but suggested civil fines are more likely for first-time offenses. The Transportation Security Administration and federal, state and local agencies will enforce the mask requirement.

The order makes exceptions for travelers younger than two and for those with certain medical conditions, people in private cars, and solo commercial truck drivers. Travelers may remote their for brief periods to eat, drink or take medication. Masks may be either manufactured or homemade.

For those claiming a medical exception, airlines and other transit modes may require medical documentation and consultation by a medical specialist as well as requiring a negative COVID-19 test or proof of recovery from Covid-19 before allowing a passenger to board a plane or other mode of transportation.

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Some claim that the exception for disabilities means fewer people will wear masks. But if a passenger has a disability, then, irrespective of the CDC order, airlines are obligated to make reasonable accommodation for it under the Air Carriers Access Act.

For U.S. airlines, the CDC order basically codifies the status quo. Airlines already mandate masks on flights. Airlines have not been bashful about enforcing there policies on masks. While they don’t have the power of civil or criminal penalties, individual airlines have prohibited more than 2,700 passengers from future travel on their airline for violating the mask policy.

The CDC is also studying requiring negative COVID-19 tests for domestic air travel after mandating it for nearly all international travel effective Jan. 26.  That would be a good step toward limiting spread idea if there is sufficient testing capability and there is a quarantine requirement after travel as there is with most international travel. People can test negative and still be infected, or they can become infected after testing and before flying.

Final Thoughts

Currently more than 440,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 in one year.  A U.S. government requirement to wear masks in interstate travel is long overdue even though airlines have had their own policies for several months.  Because social distancing is infeasible in many situations, wearing masks is the single most effective way to stop the pandemic.  Even after vaccines are widely available, we will probably still need to wear masks because, so far, there is no proof that vaccines prevent infection with or transmission of the virus.