October 20, 2020

What you need to know about CDC's new mask guidance for public transportation

Daily Briefing

    CDC on Monday issued new interim guidance recommending that all passengers and employees on airplanes, trains, ride-share vehicles, and other public transportation wear masks to prevent the novel coronavirus's spread.

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    The new guidance comes as U.S. officials as of Tuesday morning reported a total of 8,255,400 cases of the novel coronavirus since the country's epidemic began—up from about 8,190,900 cases reported as of Monday morning.

    According to the New York Times, the United States' average daily number of newly reported coronavirus cases over the past week was 59,269—which is up by 34% when compared with the average from two weeks ago. On Monday, U.S. officials reported about 64,218 new cases of the virus, the Times reports.

    Data from the Times shows that the rates of newly reported coronavirus cases are "staying high" in Guam, Puerto Rico, and 31 states that have had a daily average of at least 15 newly reported cases per 100,000 people over the past week. Those states are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

    Washington, D.C., and 10 states that have had comparatively low case rates are now seeing those rates "going up," according to the Times. Those states are Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington.

    In the 10 remaining U.S. states and territories, rates of newly reported coronavirus cases are "staying low," according to the Times' analysis.

    U.S. officials as of Tuesday morning also reported a total of 220,058 deaths linked to the coronavirus since the country's epidemic began—up from about 219,541 deaths reported as of Monday morning.

    CDC issues 'strong recommendation' for mask wearing on public transport

    As the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the United States, CDC on Monday issued interim guidance with a "strong recommendation for wearing of masks by passengers on and operators of conveyances to prevent spread of the virus," which "causes Covid-19."

    CDC officials said the agency issued the interim guidelines amid calls from the airline industry to release recommendations on mask wearing, as research has provided strong evidence on the effectiveness of masks in reducing the coronavirus's transmission. Vice President Mike Pence also had asked CDC Director Robert Redfield to issue such recommendations, CDC officials said.

    A CDC official who spoke to the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity said the agency previously had drafted an order that would have required all passengers and employees to wear masks on all public transportation and likely would have imposed a penalty for violating the requirement, but the White House blocked that draft order.

    According to the Post, one CDC official explained that, although the agency already recommends the widespread use of masks, the new guidelines include stronger language and provide the airline industry with more latitude to require mask wearing.

    CDC in the interim guidance states that traveling on public transportation—including airplanes, ships, ferries, trains, subways, buses, taxis, and ride-shares—and locations where people board transportation—including airports, train stations, and bus or ferry terminals—increases a person's risk of catching and/or spreading the novel coronavirus. In a statement issued Monday, the agency said, "[T]ransmission of the virus through travel has led to—and continues to lead to—interstate and international spread of the virus." CDC added, "Local transmission can grow quickly into interstate and international transmission when infected persons travel on public conveyances without wearing a mask and with others who are not wearing masks."

    However, CDC in the interim guidelines noted that "[f]ace masks help prevent people who have Covid-19, including those who are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic, from spreading the virus to others." The agency added, "Masks are most likely to reduce the spread of Covid-19 when they are widely used by people in public settings."

    CDC in the interim guidelines wrote that "[b]road and routine utilization of masks on our transportation systems will protect Americans and provide confidence that we can once again travel more safely even during this [epidemic]." The agency in the guidance urges transport operators to provide information to "people purchasing tickets or otherwise booking transportation" on mask-wearing recommendations and to make sure all employees and passengers wear masks "for the duration of travel."

    Transportation industry offers mixed reaction

    CDC's new guidelines drew mixed reactions from stakeholders in the transportation industry.

    Airlines for America, a trade group representing major airlines, said the "face-covering requirement along with enhanced disinfection practices and health acknowledgement forms are key components in our multi-layered approach to protecting the well-being of our employees and the traveling public."

    And Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, praised CDC for being "as strong as possible" with its new guidance. Nelson noted that airlines have been quick to implement mask policies, adding, "They understood very quickly that if there's any chance for air travel, you've got to put procedures in place that give the public confidence that it's safe to fly."

    But others said CDC's guidance falls short of what's needed to protect employees in the transportation industry.

    Larry Willis, president of AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department, said the guidelines are "a good step in the right direction. But at the end of the day, these are still just recommendations." He added, "To really give teeth to these requirements, there actually has to be a federal mandate."

    John Costa, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), said the interim guidance "is too little, too late and downright shameful."

    Costa said that, amid thousands of coronavirus-related deaths, including 90 of ATU's members, the federal government's "inadequate" guidance "jeopardizes the safety of operators by asking them to kick people off who aren't wearing masks. This can only lead to potentially dangerous confrontations" (Shepardson, Reuters, 10/19; Sun et al., Washington Post, 10/19; New York Times, 10/19).

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