(Bloomberg) — The Biden administration is vowing tough enforcement of new safety measures it is imposing on travelers to curb the spread of the coronavirus even as some say elements of the plan will be difficult to police.
In an executive order he will issue Thursday, his second day in office, President Joe Biden will require masks be worn in airports, planes, intercity buses and other forms of transportation. The president is also ordering people who arrive in the U.S. from other countries to self-quarantine, which had previously been unenforced guidance.
“We are prepared to make sure we use all relevant authorities to enforce the president’s executive order to ensure across every mode of transportation workers, passengers, commuters are protected,” Pete Buttigieg, the nominee to become secretary of transportation, told lawmakers Thursday during a hearing on his confirmation.
Biden will also codify an action by former President Donald Trump on Jan. 12 to require a negative Covid-19 test before flying to the U.S. from other nations, according to a Biden administration fact sheet. The order will be coupled with one requiring masks on federal properties that was signed by Biden on Wednesday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has broad legal authority to impose both mask-wearing mandates for most travel and requirements that international travelers isolate after arriving in the U.S., said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University Law School.
“I think there is political will,” said Gostin, who has been in contact with members of the incoming administration. The issue of wearing masks has become politicized and may face some resistance, “but ultimately most Americans will follow the rule of law.”
While a government rule for mask usage could be enforced under existing laws, ensuring that tens of thousands of people isolate after international travel will be a near-impossible task, said the leader of a travel advocacy group.
“I don’t know how in the world we are ever going to enforce that,” said Charles Leocha, president of Travelers United Inc. “I’m really interested in seeing how we are going to come up with an effective quarantine program. It’s not like New Zealand, where they only have two airports and very limited flights.”
All U.S. carriers currently have some kind of requirement that passengers cover their faces, as do many airports and transit systems, but enforcement has at times been spotty. Airlines, for example, have limited remedies, such as refusing to allow customers to board future flights.
The requirements will go beyond airplanes. According to the Biden fact sheet, the administration will require “mask-wearing in airports, on certain modes of public transportation, including many trains, airplanes, maritime vessels, and intercity buses.”
While evidence on the risks of flying during the pandemic varies, there is broad consensus that wearing a tight face covering can significantly reduce the risks of transmitting the Covid-19 virus.
One of the actions with the highest potential impact is a requirement that people arriving in the U.S. from other nations adhere to what have previously been unenforced quarantine guidelines from the CDC.
The CDC suggests international travelers get a second test for the virus within three to five days after arrival and that they stay at home or in isolation for seven days — even if the test is negative. People who don’t get tested should isolate for 10 days, the CDC says.
Similar restrictions in the U.K. have reduced travel and have been opposed by airlines and others in the travel industry, who have said aggressive testing should be enough to slow spread of the disease.
Airlines for America, a trade group for large U.S. carriers, has said it would prefer testing of international passengers instead of quarantines. The group hasn’t commented on the Biden plan.
While the impact of a quarantine on the dramatically reduced number of passengers from European nations would be minimal, travel to places such as Mexico has remained relatively strong during the pandemic and could be depressed under such an order.
The executive order also calls for unspecified “consideration of additional public health measures in domestic travel,” according to the Biden fact sheet.
Adherence to the airline mask requirements have been inconsistent, and there are exceptions for when passengers must eat and drink. Aside from persuasion, the only tool for airlines if passengers refuse is to prohibit them from taking the flight.
The new Biden policy could subject passengers to charges. During the entire pandemic, the Federal Aviation Administration has only filed civil charges against two people related to their refusal to wear masks in cases of alleged threats or assaults on flight attendants.
Hundreds of people have been barred from flying on individual carriers for refusing or getting into disputes with flight attendants and pilots over the issue.
In the days surrounding the Jan. 6 pro-Trump mob storming of the U.S. Capitol, numerous incidents were reported on social media and by airlines of people traveling to and from Washington without masks.
The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and the Association of Professional Flight attendants, unions that have for months sought a federal mask mandate, hailed the action as a long overdue.
“As passengers travel on different airlines and through various airports, they deserve to have clear expectations on what the rules are,” Julie Hedrick, president of APFA, said in a statement.
Materials summarizing the Biden executive order made no mention of a separate ban on the arrival of most European and Brazilian travelers. Trump announced Monday that he planned to rescind the orders, most of which were enacted last March.
But Biden spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that day the incoming administration plans to block Trump’s move.
“On the advice of our medical team, the Administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26. In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of Covid-19,” she tweeted.
The new order comes the same day that U.S. infectious-disease chief Anthony Fauci pledged his country’s commitment to the World Health Organization, including membership in a global effort to deploy Covid-19 vaccines.
Fauci addressed the Geneva-based group Thursday morning, underlining the new president’s effort to mend ties with an agency crucial to fighting the pandemic. He confirmed that the U.S. will join Covax, a 92-nation vaccine collaboration that the Trump administration declined to participate in.
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