Mask mandate, mandatory quarantine: What Biden’s newest executive order means for you

Jan 22, 2021

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Many travelers, and the travel industry at large, have called for a federal mask mandate throughout the novel coronavirus pandemic, and now they’re getting their wish.

One of President Joe Biden’s first actions as president is to make wearing a mask mandatory while traveling domestically, as deaths from COVID-19 in the United States exceed 400,000. President Biden signed an executive order on Thursday requiring that masks be worn on “many” airplanes, trains, buses and during all interstate travel, calling mask-wearing a “patriotic duty.” It’s not, however, clear at this time what “many” means.

Previously, there was no federal requirement to wear a mask in public spaces. And actually enforcing mask compliance during a flight, for example, has been easier said than done.

The executive order also lays the groundwork for “vaccine passports,” a digital way for passengers to link their COVID-19 vaccinations to travel. There were no further details about when and how it would be rolled out — but the order makes it clear that it’s on the new administration’s mind. The executive order also requires international arrivals to quarantine.

The mandate follows an executive order signed on President Biden’s first day in office that requires masks to be worn in all federal buildings and on federal land. And last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that all passengers flying into the United States, including U.S. citizens, must present a negative COVID-19 test in order to board their flights, effective Jan. 26.

So, how does this new executive order affect travelers? Here’s what we know so far.

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In This Post

Where are masks required?

(Photo by DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images)

Masks are required to be worn while traveling domestically at airports, on commercial aircraft, on trains and on public maritime vessels (including ferries), plus intercity buses and all forms of public transportation. Commercial airlines and Amtrak already require passengers to wear face masks, and major bus companies like Megabus, Boltbus and Greyhound all require face masks.

The executive order says that agency heads may “make categorical or case-by-case exceptions” if necessary or required by law. Any exceptions, however, require “alternative and appropriate safeguards.”

More: Which U.S. airlines are blocking middle seats, requiring masks?

What about international travel?

U.S. airlines already require face masks to be worn during travel, and travelers arriving in the U.S. are now required to have a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of departure, in order to board their flights. That order begins on Jan. 26.

Can a mask mandate be enforced?

It’s not yet clear how the Biden administration will enforce this mandate and what penalties may apply to people who attempt to flout the rules. All U.S. airlines, and Amtrak, already require masks to be worn on board, and thousands of passengers have been banned for not complying.

Enforcing mask usage in flight has proved to be problematic, however. Flight attendants and other cabin crew members have been challenged by unruly passengers refusing to wear a mask. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) adopted a “zero-tolerance” policy for disruptive passengers following an uptick in the number of passengers not wearing masks and a riot at the U.S. Capitol in early January.

But this new mandate could give flight crew more power to handle unruly passengers.

“The [mask mandate] brings an entirely new level of enforceability, and [flight crews] might not be as hesitant in the future [to alert] ground staff of a violation that occurred in the air,” Joe Leader, the CEO of APEX — one of the largest international airline associations — told TPG.

The FAA says passengers who interfere with, physically assault or threaten to physically assault aircraft crew or anyone else on an aircraft face fines of up to $35,000 and jail time.

Related: Here’s what might land you on a government or airline no-fly list

What does the executive order say about quarantining?

The executive order also says passengers returning to the U.S. will also need to quarantine upon arrival. Biden is asking several agencies to submit their recommendations on the exact quarantine length to his administration within 14 days. Current CDC guidelines say travelers should get tested three to five days after travel and isolate for seven days after travel, and it’s not clear if the requirement will deviate from this recommendation.

Airlines support a mask mandate

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

U.S. airlines and unions have long supported a federal mask mandate during the pandemic, which the previous Trump administration opposed. The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), the union that represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at over a dozen airlines, has praised the next executive order.

“Today’s executive action on a mask mandate for interstate travel, including airports and planes, will provide much-needed backup for flight attendants and aviation workers on the front lines,” the organization said.

Biden’s mask mandate will undoubtedly be supported by his nominee for Transportation Secretary, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

“Safety is the foundation of the department’s mission, and it takes on new meaning amid this pandemic,” Buttigieg said in prepared remarks during his confirmation hearing. “We must ensure all of our transportation systems — from aviation to public transit, to our railways, roads, ports, waterways and pipelines — are managed safely during this critical period, as we work to defeat the virus,” he said.

Bottom line

There are several unanswered questions, such as how the mandate will be enforced and how long it will last. But travelers and airlines who have called for a federal mask mandate since the onset of the pandemic appear to have finally been heard. With mask compliance being one of the first issues President Biden tackled in his new administration — and Buttegig’s assurance that he’ll support enforcement — nervous travelers may be able to fly easier.

Featured photo by Eduardo Munoz / VIEWpress via Getty Images.

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