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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman January 21, 2021

Biden issues mask orders for federal buildings, air travel

President Joe Biden, on his first days in office, issued orders requiring masks in federal buildings and on airplanes.

Biden's Jan. 21 order to protect travelers requires people to wear masks in airports, commercial aircraft, trains and public maritime vessels and intercity buses. It also requires travelers seeking to enter the United States from a foreign country to test negative for COVID-19 before entry, although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a similar requirement  before Biden took office.

Airlines have been requiring passengers to wear masks on board and had the option to ban from flights any who refuse, but the latest federal order gives them an extra tool.

A day earlier, Biden ordered that all individuals "in federal buildings and on federal lands should all wear masks, maintain physical distance, and adhere to other public health measures" as provided in CDC guidelines.

The part of Biden's order that could prove the most challenging, however, is his directive to federal officials to engage with state and local officials to maximize mask wearing and other public health practices. That's because boosting support for wearing masks is largely dependent on state and local leaders.

Lawrence Gostin, a health law professor at Georgetown University, said that while the president can require the wearing of masks on federal buildings and during interstate travel, he does not have authority to issue a national mask mandate.

That power is left to state officials, which is why the Biden administration is reaching out to governors.

During the Democratic National Convention in August, Biden said, "We'll have a national mandate to wear a mask, not as a burden, but to protect each other."

The Congressional Research Service in August issued a report cautioning that enforcement of a nationwide mandate could be restricted by the Constitution and other laws, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which requires courts to grant certain religious exemptions.

Most states have mask mandates, according to a New York Times analysis. In the other states, some cities or counties have set their own rules. Biden may struggle to sway some states to issue statewide mask mandates. 

"I'm opposed to mandates, period," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, told reporters Nov. 30. "I don't think they work. People in Florida wear them when you go out. I mean, they don't have to be strung up by a bayonet to do it. Fining people is, I think, totally overboard."

Some governors have said mask wearing should be a personal choice, including South Dakota's Republican Gov. Kristi Noem.

"Gov. Noem has been very clear on this subject: She does not support mask mandates," spokesman Ian Fury told PolitiFact.

 Masks became a partisan issue in 2020 as President Donald Trump spread falsehoods about masks and mocked mask wearing. Public health experts said Biden's mask order is a welcome step, but whether it will lead to more mask orders in states or cities remains to be seen.

"I am not sure that we will see more state or local mask mandates as a result, but certainly having a president that supports science-based COVID prevention strategies such as mask wearing helps stress the importance of face coverings as a common sense strategy to help stop the spread of COVID," said Michael R. Fraser, CEO of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

A new, more transmittable variant of the coronavirus and the surge in cases could inspire more mask mandates, said Adriane Casalotti, a spokesperson for the National Association of County and City Health Officials. 

"We are still a very divided country and so there may be some ability to move individual areas, but the politics on the ground will still play a role," Casalotti said. 

Health officials largely agree that wearing a face mask, coupled with social distancing and frequent hand-washing, is more protective than going unmasked. The CDC recommends that people wear masks in public settings, including on public transportation, at events and gatherings, and anywhere they will be around other people. 

We will watch efforts by Biden to expand mask use nationwide, but his orders are a first step. We rate this promise In the Works.


Our Sources

White House, National Strategy for Pandemic Response and Preparedness, Jan. 21, 2021

White House, Executive Order on Protecting the Federal Workforce and Requiring Mask-Wearing, Jan. 20, 2021

White House, Executive Order promoting COVID-19 safety in domestic and international travel, Jan. 21, 2021

Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International President Sara Nelson, Statement, Jan. 21, 2021

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC Expands Negative COVID-19 Test Requirement to All Air Passengers Entering the United States, Jan. 12, 2021

Joe Biden campaign website, 2020

Journal of the American Medical Association, Universal Masking in the United States The Role of Mandates, Health Education, and the CDC, Aug. 10, 2020

New York Times, See Coronavirus Restrictions and Mask Mandates for All 50 States, updated Jan. 19, 2021, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis COVID-19 Press Conference Transcript, Nov. 30, 2020

Politico, Red state governors reject Biden on mask orders, Nov. 13, 2020

USA Today, President Biden to mandate masks on planes. Will it reduce number of in-flight scofflaws? Jan. 21, 2021

PolitiFact, Masks for COVID-19 are effective, as a six-part Facebook takedown fails, June 12, 2020

PolitiFact, Fact-checking Joe Biden at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Aug. 21, 2020

PolitiFact, No, these 5 states aren't 'mask free.' There are local mask requirements, Oct. 7, 2020

PolitiFact, Lie of the Year: Coronavirus downplay and denial, Dec. 16, 2020

PolitiFact, Timeline: How Donald Trump responded to the coronavirus pandemic, Updated Jan. 19, 2021

Telephone interview, Lawrence Gostin, professor, director, O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, Georgetown School of Law, Jan. 20, 2021

Email interview, Michael R. Fraser, Chief Executive Officer, Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, Jan. 20, 2021 

Email interview, Adriane Casalotti, Chief of Government and Public Affairs for the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), Jan. 20, 2021

Email interview, Ian Fury, Gov. Kristi Noem spokesperson, Jan. 20, 2021

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