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FAQ: How do Biden’s new mask orders work?

Then-President-elect Joe Biden removes a protective face mask before delivering remarks at a news conference in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 22. (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post)
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One of President Biden’s first actions in office was to issue new orders requiring mask-wearing on planes, in airports and on all federal property. Here’s what we know about how these orders will work:

What do the new executive orders on masks do?

One order requires that masks be worn at airports, bus stations and other transportation hubs, and on planes, trains, ships and buses. The second order requires masks on federal property.

Is this a national mask mandate?

Together, the two orders come as close to a national mask mandate as some believe federal powers allow, but they are not the national mask requirement for which some public health experts had hoped.

Such a requirement would have been likely to be challenged in court by anti-mask activists, who have argued that only states and municipalities have the power to require residents to wear masks at a local level. Others, however, have argued that these are unprecedented times and that a national mask mandate would send a message and reflect the seriousness of the crisis.

How is this going to be enforced?

The transportation mask order is to be enforced by the Transportation Security Administration and “by other federal authorities and may be enforced by cooperating state and local authorities,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The order regarding masks on federal property leaves it to agencies to determine how to implement the requirement.

When do the orders take effect?

The transportation mask requirement starts at 11:59 p.m. February 1. It is unclear when the requirements will go into effect for federal property. White House officials instructed agency heads to provide regular briefings and encouraged them to quickly raise “any questions regarding the scope or implementation” of the orders.

To what federal properties does it apply? Does this mean people have to wear masks at national parks?

It is unknown whether masks will be required at outdoor federal properties such as national parks. Social distancing and masks already are strongly encouraged at most national parks, but under President Donald Trump, the National Park Service had not made them mandatory.

Asked specifically about whether masks will be required at parks, a Biden administration official said such decisions will be left to their overseeing agencies to implement, while also following science.

How could the new requirements help to curb the pandemic?

Masks are the lowest-hanging fruit of public health measures. The nation doesn’t have enough vaccine doses. Shutdowns are hurtful to businesses and impossible to sustain through the pandemic.

An overwhelming amount of science shows how dramatically masks reduce transmission of this virus. Masks are one of many tools available — including testing, contact tracing and vaccines. But experts say masks are perhaps the easiest and most cost-effective way to reduce infections.

“It is, in some ways, our best medical tool,” said Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. “It can save hundreds of thousands of lives without the need for surgery, drugs, [has] no side effects and [is] readily available to everyone.”

What kinds of travel and types of transportation are covered in the mandate?

It applies to commercial aircraft, trains, public maritime vessels, including ferries, buses and rideshare vehicles. It also covers transportation hubs, such as airports and train stations.

Which federal agencies will implement the transportation mask requirement?

The order instructs the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Transportation and Homeland Security, as well as the Coast Guard and any other executive departments and agencies with “relevant regulatory authority” to take action immediately to put the requirement in place. It calls on agency leaders to regularly brief Jeffrey Zients, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus response, on their progress.

Will there be exceptions to the transportation mask mandate?

Children under 2 years old are exempt, as are people with a disability “who cannot wear a mask, or cannot safely wear a mask, because of the disability,” according to the CDC. There is also an exception if masks would “create a risk to workplace health, safety, or job duty” per safety guidelines or federal regulations. Heads of federal agencies can make exemptions for entire categories of people or on a case-by-case basis if required by law. If they do that, they must require “alternative and appropriate safeguards,” according to the order, although it does not give examples. The exceptions must be documented in writing.

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Where does the federal government get its authority?

The CDC notes that the federal government gets its power to isolate and quarantine people with communicable diseases from the Constitution’s commerce clause. Isolation means its authority to separate those who are sick from those who aren’t, the agency said. Quarantine “separates and restricts the movement” of people exposed to disease to determine whether they become ill, according to the CDC.

The secretary of health and human services “is authorized to take measures to prevent the entry and spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the United States and between states,” and that has been done in practice by the CDC, the public health agency said.

Don’t airlines already require masks?

Yes. But safety reports filed with the federal government show flight attendants seeking to enforce that private-sector requirement have repeatedly been taunted, verbally abused and ignored by passengers. The risks have, at times, gone beyond the increased potential for coronavirus infection. One pilot, distracted by mask violations, descended to the wrong altitude, although there was no conflicting air traffic, according to a safety report.

Airlines say they have banned hundreds of passengers from flying during the pandemic because of mask violations. Members of Congress, unions representing transportation workers and public health experts within the CDC have called for a federal requirement to wear masks.

Why are some people resistant to mask-wearing?

Some degree of resistance to any new practice is natural. During the 1918 pandemic, for example, anti-mask protests led to confrontations. What has made things worse over the past year, health experts say, is the politicization of the issue by Trump and others. As a result, large parts of the country have become stubbornly resistant to the practice.

Thirty-five states require people to wear masks in public, according to the White House’s new coronavirus strategy document. Some state leaders have proudly touted their refusal to enact mask mandates. That group includes South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R), a Trump ally. The hope, public health experts say, is that Biden’s actions will make such mandates more widely enacted because that is the default position of the federal government.

How widespread is mask-wearing now?

Researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington have tracked through surveys how many people wear masks. Mask-wearing in many countries, including Singapore, Japan and Argentina, quickly reached 95 percent. In the United States, that number went from 40 percent in April to 76 percent more recently.