As he promised during the election, President Joe Biden has wasted no time in taking action against the spread of COVID-19. One of his first orders of business in the White House was signing an executive order to mandate mask wearing in all federal buildings.
"It's requiring, as I said all along, where I have authority, mandating masks be worn, social distancing be kept on federal property," Biden told reporters in the Oval Office, as reported by The New York Times.
Under the mandate, face masks will be required on all federal property and by all federal employees and contractors. This applies to all federal buildings and land across the country, including federal courthouses, state Capitols, national parks, and monuments. This means if you visit the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty, you'll be required to mask up. Although Biden has no authority over state and local orders, he has urged them to enact their own mandates. While most states already have mask requirements in place, others (including Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee) have chosen not to issue a statewide order.
An executive order is basically a rule or order issued by the president to an executive department of the government (such as Health and Human Services or Transportation). The order has the force of law behind it, meaning you can be fined and/or imprisoned if you're found guilty of breaching its terms.
Biden has signed several executive orders in his first few days in office, including many reversals of actions taken by the Trump administration. The president has stopped the US withdrawal from the World Health Organization, and appointed Dr. Anthony Fauci as head of the delegation to the WHO. Biden also created the position of COVID-19 Response Coordinator, who will report directly to the president and manage efforts to produce and distribute vaccines and vital medical equipment.
Another of Biden's executive orders mandates masks for interstate travelers in the US. It requires several agencies to take action to require masks be worn in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, and applies to airports and planes, trains, ferries, intercity buses, and public transportation.
While it's not yet clear how the requirement will be carried out, mandating masks for interstate travel was welcomed by many. "What a difference leadership makes! We welcome President Biden's nationwide approach to crushing the virus and lifting us out of this pandemic," said Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants–CWA, in a statement, per CNN. She added that the mandate would provide "much needed back up" for flight attendants and other aviation workers on the "front lines."
The flight attendants union AFA first asked for a mask mandate on planes in April 2020, but the Trump administration refused. The then Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said she felt the issue was better left to companies and employee unions to handle.
Of course, the majority of travelers may have already been masking up for months—airlines already require all passengers and crew members to wear masks. But a federal mandate adds weight to the rules already in place. Hopefully, this will help increase compliance and prevent the harassment of flight attendants trying to enforce their company's policies. In 2020, three major US airlines (Delta, JetBlue, and United) added more than 1,200 passengers to their no-fly lists for refusing to wear masks.
As well as the mask mandate, Biden ordered that all travelers, including US citizens, be required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test (taken within 72 hours of departure) before entering the US from abroad, and go into quarantine as soon as they arrive. This is in line with new CDC guidelines, which suggest a seven-day quarantine for arrivals from outside the US.
The new mask mandates form part of Biden's "100 Days Masking Challenge," which he launched before his inauguration. In an interview with CNN in December, he emphasized that the example must be set from the highest ranking members of government, to encourage others to do the same. "Just 100 to mask, not forever. One hundred days. And I think we'll see a significant reduction," he told the network's Joe Tapper.
In one of the first tweets from his POTUS account, Biden said, "Wearing masks isn't a partisan issue—it's a patriotic act that can save countless lives. That's why I signed an executive order today issuing a mask mandate on federal property. It's time to mask up, America." And remember: This sentiment goes for everyone—even if you've had COVID-19 or have received both shots for the vaccine.
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