President Joe Biden issued an executive order Thursday requiring masks to be worn on public transportation. It was the latest abrupt change from his predecessor Donald Trump, who actively blocked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from issuing a similar order last year.
The order mandates that passengers and employees wear face coverings on planes, trains, buses, subways, and other modes of public transportation. “Ensuring that people can safely travel will be critical for families and to jump starting the economy,” the Biden administration writes in its COVID-19 response plan.
The Trump administration killed an earlier effort to require masks on transportation, arguing the decision should be up to individual states and localities. Trump also spent many crucial months of the pandemic implying face masks were unnecessary, effectively politicizing the issue of mask-wearing. The CDC had proposed requiring face coverings, but the White House coronavirus task force, headed by former Vice President Mike Pence, refused to discuss it, according to The New York Times.
Public health officials have uniformly recommended the wearing of masks to curb the spread of the coronavirus, particularly in crowded, poorly ventilated areas. On its website, the CDC “strongly recommends” wearing masks on transportation to reduce the chance of getting and spreading COVID-19 — though now that recommendation will be backed up with the force of a presidential mandate.
Mass transit ridership has plummeted in the year since the coronavirus was first detected in the US. For example, ridership on New York City’s notoriously packed commuter trains dropped 92 percent in mid-April when the city emerged as an epicenter of the global health crisis. Riders have begun to return to public transportation, but ridership numbers are still lagging behind their pre-pandemic levels.
Some municipalities took steps to enforce their own mask rules. The MTA, for example, over the summer began imposing a $50 fine on riders who refused to wear a mask. But the New York Police Department rarely hands out tickets: as of November, the department had only fined 15 people for noncompliance.
There is little evidence that mass transit poses a particular risk for COVID-19 outbreaks. While the US lags behind other countries with regard to contact tracing, experts agree that riding trains and buses is much safer if all of the passengers and employees are wearing masks.
Airlines have also been left to enforce their own mask rules. Most major airlines have eliminated any medical exemptions to their rules, and several are cracking down on the types of face coverings allowed. All airlines insist passengers wear a mask as soon as they enter an airport and to keep it on throughout the travel journey except to briefly remove it to drink or eat.
The new order was issued on the same day that Biden’s nominee for transportation secretary, former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, will sit for his Senate confirmation hearing. Buttigieg is expected to play a pivotal role in Biden’s push for a bipartisan infrastructure deal. The president has vowed to spend $1.3 trillion to build new schools, roads, bridges, railroads, and pipes, while also expanding broadband access and attacking climate change.
During the hearing, Buttigieg said Biden was prepared to enforce its new mask mandate across multiple federal agencies. “We were prepared to make sure that we use all relevant authorities to enforce the president’s executive order,” he said, “to ensure that across every mode of transportation, workers, passengers, and commuters are protected.”