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Homeland Security gives TSA workers authority to enforce Biden’s mask mandate

The Department of Homeland Security said Sunday that Transportation Security Administration workers now have the authority to enforce President Joe Biden’s transportation mask mandate “at TSA screening checkpoints and throughout the commercial and public transportation system.”

Acting Secretary David Pekoske on Sunday signed a Determination of National Emergency, which said the TSA can “take actions consistent with the authorities” of its federal jurisdiction so it can enforce the mask mandate order laid out by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late Friday.

“This includes supporting the CDC in the enforcement of any orders or other requirements necessary to protect the transportation system, including passengers and employees, from Covid-19 and to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 through the transportation system, to the extent appropriate and consistent with applicable law,” Pekoske wrote.

The CDC order issued last week requires people to wear a mask while using any form of public transportation, including on board planes, trains, buses, boats, subways, taxis and ride-shares, as well as inside airports and other transportation hubs. The order goes into effect Monday at 11:59 p.m.

The TSA said in a news release Sunday that passengers without a mask “may be denied entry, boarding, or continued transport” and that failure to comply with the mask requirement can result in civil penalties.

“TSA will fully comply with the President’s Executive Orders, CDC guidance and the DHS National Emergency determination to ensure healthy and secure travel across all transportation sectors,” Senior Official Performing the Duties of the TSA Administrator Darby LaJoye said in a statement Sunday evening.

“This will help prevent further spread of COVID-19 and encourage a unified government response. As we continue to experience impacts from this pandemic, we are committed to this measure as the right thing to do for the TSA workforce, for our industry stakeholders and for passengers.”

Pekoske’s directive underscores the Biden administration’s cautious approach to the virus and is yet another example of how it is looking for any ways to mitigate its spread. Though it’s possible to contract Covid-19 aboard an airplane, the chances of contracting the virus while on board a flight are relatively slim, according to experts.

The TSA said Sunday that people without a mask “will be asked to wear or obtain one to proceed” through the security screening process. “Depending on the circumstance, those who refuse to wear a mask may be subject to a civil penalty for attempting to circumvent screening requirements, interfering with screening personnel, or a combination of those offenses,” the agency said.

The CDC order, signed by the agency’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine director, says people must wear a mask that covers the nose and mouth while on public transportation and while waiting for their ride. The mask needs to have at least two or more layers of breathable fabric and needs to be secured to the head with ties, ear loops or elastic bands.

Additionally, the masks need to fit snugly and should not have exhalation valves or punctures. If someone chooses to wear a gaiter, it must be made with two layers of fabric or be folded to have two layers. Face shields and goggles can supplement a mask, according to the order, but cannot be worn in place of a mask. Scarves and bandanas do not fulfill this new requirement, which exempts children under the age of two or people with a disability who cannot wear a mask.

The CDC said it reserves the right to enforce the order through criminal penalties, but it “strongly encourages and anticipates widespread voluntary compliance” and expects support from other federal agencies to implement the order.

Biden, shortly after taking office earlier this month, signed an executive order that mandated interstate travelers wear a mask, and on his first day in office, he challenged Americans to wear a mask for 100 days in order to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

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