The order, released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) nearly a year into the pandemic, says all those arriving and traveling across the U.S. must wear masks, as well as at transportation hubs, meaning “any airport, bus terminal, marina, seaport or other port, subway station, terminal, train station, U.S. port of entry, or any other location that provides transportation.”
“America’s transportation systems are essential,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said in an earlier statement. “Given how interconnected most transportation systems are across our nation and the world, when infected persons travel on public conveyances without wearing a mask and with others who are not wearing masks, the risk of interstate and international transmission can grow quickly.”
Enforcement of the order is seemingly up to transit operators; “conveyance operators must use best efforts to ensure that any person on the conveyance wears a mask when boarding, disembarking, and for the duration of travel,” the order reads.
A small footnote notes that the “CDC reserves the right to enforce through criminal penalties [but] CDC does not intend to rely primarily on these criminal penalties but instead strongly encourages and anticipates widespread voluntary compliance.”
Masks must have a snug fit and cover the nose and mouth, excluding face shields. The CDC doesn’t condone face shields as a substitute to masks because respiratory droplets can escape through the large gaps. Travelers can briefly remove masks to eat, drink and take medication, and for several other limited circumstances.
The order, signed by Dr. Martin Cetron, director of the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, went into effect Feb. 1 at 11:59 p.m., set to remain in place “unless modified or rescinded based on specific public health or other considerations.”
The federal health agency attempted a similar order previously under the Trump administration, but the efforts were halted. The mask mandate under the Biden administration comes amid a dozen executive orders, including on climate change and health care.
Finally, health experts, including the CDC, urge against non-essential travel amid the pandemic.
“CDC recommends that non-essential travel be avoided; however, for those who must travel, additional measures are being put in place to help prevent the spread of the virus,” Walensky added. “Masks are most likely to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when they are widely and consistently used by all people in public settings.”