What Happened: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) drafted a science-based order requiring all passengers and employees to wear masks on public transportation to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but the White House – in an unusual use of executive power – chose to block the order.
Why it matters: By blocking the order, the White House has sidelined the expertise of public health scientists thereby stopping them from implementing a science-based policy that would prevent transmission and ultimately save lives. The CDC’s mission is to protect the health and safety of the American people. Rigorous scientific research has shown that masks when widely and properly used, can significantly reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2 including on public transit.
The White House Coronavirus Task Force blocked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from issuing a science-based order requiring all employees and passengers to wear masks on public transportation including trains, planes, buses, and subways as well as in airports, train stations and bus depots.
The CDC, with the support of the US Department of Health and Human Services, drafted the order but the White House Coronavirus Task Force refused to discuss it. Instead opting to leave the decision to mandate masks on public transit to state and local governments.
According to the scientific research, masks along with other social distancing measures are currently our best defense against the spread of the novel coronavirus especially on public transit. However, they also emphasize that masks are most effective when they are widely used by all individuals when out in public.
CDC research has shown that when an infected individual travels by plane or bus without a mask, the risk of transmission to other passengers increases significantly. A case study of one flight from Italy to South Korea at the start of this year confirmed that at least one individual contracted the virus while on board a flight where passengers were not required to wear masks. Following the study, scientists stated that “stringent global regulations” were required to prevent transmission on aircraft.
Transportation employees have shown concern for the health risks they face when dealing with a state-by-state patchwork of mask mandates. Several worker’s unions representing employees of public transit systems and airlines filed petitions and requests for a nationwide mask mandate. Workers made it clear that a sweeping mandate would not only help safeguard the health of employees, but also make it easier to enforce the use of masks when faced with resistance from passengers.
After pressure from the airline industry, the CDC released more strongly-worded guidelines stating that all passengers and employees should wear masks while on public transportation. However, these guidelines still do not satisfy the requests of the transportation workforce and public health experts for a nation-wide mandate. Nor do they implement the kind of nation-wide policy that according to the science is needed to halt the spread of COVID-19 on public transportation.
We are living through a deadly pandemic that requires nation-wide action to truly put a halt to the spread of COVID-19. By preventing the CDC from administering a mask order on all public transportation nationwide, the White House has prevented the CDC from using their scientific expertise to act against COVID-19 effectively and efficiently.