Travelers may now be breaking the law by refusing to wear a face mask

Feb 1, 2021

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For much of the pandemic, the CDC has recommended that you cover your face whenever you’re around people outside your household. It’s always been the most effective measure when it comes to reducing the spread of COVID-19, but now you have no choice but to comply — as of this week, in many cases, face masks are required by federal law.

A new federal mandate kicks in tomorrow, Feb. 2 — as TPG’s Victoria Walker reported over the weekend, face masks must be worn on all public transportation in the United States, including airplanes, trains, buses, taxis and rideshare services.

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For months, all U.S. airlines have required that their customers wear masks onboard flights and in many areas within the airport — now, you’ll be legally obligated to wear them onboard all flights that touch the United States, and within all U.S. airports, including at TSA checkpoints.

The TSA — one of the agencies tasked with enforcing the mandate — is clear on what constitutes an appropriate face covering:

“According to the CDC Order, face masks should cover the nose and mouth and fit snugly against the sides without gaps. Masks can be either manufactured or homemade and should be a solid piece of material without slits, exhalation valves, or punctures. While medical masks and N-95 respirators fulfill CDC and TSA’s requirements, face shields and/or goggles are not an acceptable substitute for the use of a mask; however, they may be used in addition to an acceptable mask.”

While you will be permitted to remove your mask to eat and drink, the TSA’s security directive is specific about how quickly it needs to be replaced, stating that masks “must be worn between bites and sips.”

Similarly, you may be required to briefly lower your mask so a TSA officer can confirm your identity at a screening checkpoint, though it should be promptly replaced. Customers with Clear memberships may be able to avoid lowering their masks by beginning the screening process at a Clear kiosk.

There are very limited exceptions for travelers with specific conditions, as well. Namely, you may be able to avoid wearing a mask if you are:

  • Actively vomiting
  • Under the age of two
  • Short of breath (you can remove the mask to catch your breath)
  • Unable to breathe without supplemental oxygen, and are wearing an oxygen mask
  • Have a very specific disability, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act

Additionally, you can remove your mask if you are actively communicating with an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing, and won’t be able to understand what you’re saying if they’re unable to see your mouth.

Related: Traveling during the pandemic? It might be time to upgrade your mask

What penalties might you face if you don’t comply? It’s likely to depend on how you respond when confronted. In you replace your mask right away, you might get off with a verbal warning. If you don’t, you may be removed from the airport and banned from the airline. If the situation escalates, you might be looking at steep fines, or criminal penalties, if law enforcement becomes involved.

Ultimately, it’s in everyone’s best interest for you to comply. This law is intended to curb the spread of COVID-19, and masks are an effective measure — by wearing one around people outside your household, you may even help save lives.

Featured photo courtesy of TSA.

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