WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a sweeping order late on Friday (Jan 29), requiring the use of face masks on nearly all forms of public transportation Monday as the country continues to report thousands of daily Covid-19 deaths.
The order which takes effect at 11.59pm EST on Monday requires face masks to be worn by all travellers on airplanes, ships, trains, subways, buses, taxis, and ride-shares and at transportation hubs like airports, bus or ferry terminals, train and subway stations and seaports.
President Joe Biden on Jan 21 ordered government agencies to "immediately take action" to require masks in airports and on commercial aircraft, trains and public maritime vessels, including ferries, intercity bus services and all public transportation.
Under Mr Donald Trump, who was president until Jan 20, a CDC push to mandate masks in transit was blocked and the agency instead only issued strong recommendations for mask use.
Mr Trump also rejected efforts by Congress to mandate mask use.
"Requiring masks on our transportation systems will protect Americans and provide confidence that we can once again travel safely even during this pandemic," said the 11-page order signed by Mr Marty Cetron, director for CDC's Division of Global Migration and Quarantine.
While airlines and most transit modes already require masks, the CDC order will make not wearing a mask a violation of federal law that could make it easier for flight attendants and others to enforce.
A US airline group told Mr Biden this month that carriers had had to bar "thousands of passengers" from future flights for failing to comply with airline mask policies.
The CDC said people violating the order could potentially face criminal penalties but suggested civil penalties would be more likely if needed.
The order will be enforced by the Transportation Security Administration and federal, state and local agencies.
The order says passengers must wear a mask in transit except for brief periods, such as to eat, drink or take medication.
Masks may be either manufactured or homemade.
The only exceptions are for travellers younger than two and for those with certain medical conditions.
People in private cars and solo commercial truck drivers do not have to wear masks.
US airlines raised concerns this week about passenger requests to opt out of mask-wearing on health grounds.
The CDC order says airlines and other transit modes may require medical documentation and consultation by a medical specialist as well as requiring a negative Covid-19 test from a passenger in order to board a plane or other mode of transportation.
The CDC said this week it was "actively looking" at requiring negative Covid-19 tests for domestic air travel after mandating it for nearly all international travel effective Jan 26.
The prospects of domestic Covid-19 testing drew strong opposition Friday from airlines and other groups.
The CDC order says airlines and other operators must "at the earliest safe opportunity, disembark any person who refuses to comply."
Federal agencies must submit plans no later than Friday to enforce a separate Mr Biden order requiring masks in all federal building and on all federal lands.
A Jan 24 White House memo says domestic travel for federal employees "should be limited to only mission-critical trips," and occupancy at federal offices should be limited to 25 per cent during "periods of high community prevalence."