Coronavirus: US airport screeners now must wear masks, public may be next

A Transportation Security Administration official wears a mask at Pittsburgh International Airport on May 7, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - All US airport security screeners must start wearing masks and passengers should as well, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said Thursday (May 7).

The move comes as a government and industry working group begins considering a possible requirement that face coverings be worn by everyone entering an airport, two people familiar with the discussions said.

More than 500 TSA screeners have tested positive for Covid-19, including six who died, according to the agency's website. The agency for months had left mask use voluntary.

"TSA is making this change to protect our employees and travelers as social distancing cannot always be maintained in the screening process." TSA administrator David Pekoske said in a press release.

The agency's press release didn't spell out any possible future actions, but said it was "considering further changes to our screening system to further minimise the risk and to limit physical interactions in the security checkpoint."

The new requirement will be phased in "over the coming days," the agency said. It is also asking passengers to wear facial protection.

Measures being taken to protect passengers and airline crew members have been changing rapidly in recent weeks as Covid-19 infections plateau and passenger levels remain below 10 per cent of 2019.

Frontier Airlines Holdings Inc announced Thursday it would require passengers and its employees to be screened for fevers starting June 1.

Starting last week, most US airlines began phasing in requirements that passengers cover their faces, but the government has so far not mandated any such protections.

TSA security officers may also wear protective eyewear, such as the goggles or face guards used by medical personnel, the agency said. The eye protection isn't required.

Because part of the screening process involves verifying the identity of each traveller, the agency said it might ask passengers to briefly lower masks so officers can see their faces.

Airlines have begun pushing for some type of government requirement for face coverings so that there's a common standard across the industry, the people said. They asked not to be named to discuss internal deliberations.

The inter-agency group looking at new requirements will include the Federal Aviation Administration and TSA, as well as trade groups for airlines and airports, one person said.

Bloomberg News reported last week that airlines also have been asking TSA to have its officers, who are currently processing far fewer passengers than normal, perform health screens on passengers.

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