You Can Now Face Criminal Penalties for Not Wearing a Mask While Traveling

No more excuses—but there are some exceptions

Airplane traveler wearing N95 face mask receiving luggage from conveyor belt
izusek / Getty Images

As the clock struck 11:59 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021, a new mandate from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requiring masks on all forms of public transportation took effect. This marks the first time since the pandemic hit the U.S. nearly a year ago that masks have been legally and federally required on public transportation and in transportation hubs like airports, stations, and ports. Previously, it was just a guidance and up to individual carriers to enforce and police as they saw fit. 

The CDC announced the new order last week on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021—following the executive order signed by President Joe Biden mandating mask-wearing while traveling in or on several forms of public transportation, commercial planes and airports, trains, buses, and boats. The CDC’s new order echoes and adds to Biden’s order by adding to the list of scenarios where travelers will be required to strap on an acceptable mask.

Now, until further notice, travelers, operators, and transportation employees “will be required to wear a mask while boarding, disembarking, or traveling on any conveyance into or within the United States”—including “an aircraft, train, road vehicle, vessel... or other means of transport, including military.” Rideshares, subways, taxis, and ferries are also included in the list, though personal use of private jets and the like are not.

“Requiring masks on our transportation systems will protect Americans and provide confidence that we can once again travel safely even during this pandemic,” a portion of the order reads. It also states that the new rule will be enforced by TSA and other federal authorities along with state and local authorities—and that the CDC reserves the right to enforce via criminal penalties, though the agency believes a high number of voluntary adherence will deem this unnecessary.

There are, of course, exceptions to the new rule. The brief removal of a mask is permitted while a person is eating or drinking when speaking to someone who would need to read lips or full facial expressions, in the event an airplane that loses cabin pressure and requires passengers to use an oxygen mask, or for identification purposes when a full face needs to be shown. It also doesn’t apply to someone who is unconscious, incapacitated, actively vomiting, or needs medical attention. (Sorry, falling asleep or getting tipsy on your flight are not acceptable excuses.) If a passenger is having trouble breathing, it’s permitted to remove the mask temporarily until normal breathing resumes.

However, three groups of people are totally exempt from wearing a mask: children under two years of age, any person with a disability recognized by the American Disabilities Act as someone who cannot wear a mask, and anyone whose job safety or performance would be detrimentally affected by wearing a mask.

Footnotes of the ordinance leave little room for interpretation when it comes to what types of face coverings will fly. “A properly worn mask completely covers the nose and mouth of the wearer,” it states. “A mask should be secured to the head, including with ties or ear loops. A mask should fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face. Masks do not include face shields. Masks can be either manufactured or homemade and should be a solid piece of material without slits, exhalation valves, or punctures.” 

It’s worth noting that the CDC aren’t the only folks cracking down on the type of face-covering required. Germany’s Lufthansa Group recently announced that they would require passengers to wear medical-grade masks on all Lufthansa Group flights to and from Germany.

You can read the CDC’s entire 11-page order covering the new mask mandate here

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