October 23, 2020

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White House Blocked C.D.C. From Requiring Masks on Public Transportation

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention drafted a sweeping order last month requiring all passengers and employees to wear masks on all forms of public and commercial transportation in the United States, but it was blocked by the White House, according to two federal health officials.

The order would have been the toughest federal mandate to date aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus, which continues to infect more than 40,000 Americans a day. The officials said that it was drafted under the agency’s “quarantine powers” and that it had the support of the secretary of health and human services, Alex M. Azar II, but the White House Coronavirus Task Force, led by Vice President Mike Pence, declined to even discuss it.

The two officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment, said the order would have required face coverings on airplanes, trains, buses and subways, and in transit hubs such as airports, train stations and bus depots.

A task force official said the decision to require masks should be left up to states and localities. The administration requires the task force to sign off on coronavirus-related policies.

“The approach the task force has taken with any mask mandate is, the response in New York City is different than Montana, or Tuscaloosa, Alabama,” said the official who asked not to be identified because he did not have permission to discuss the matter. “Local and state authorities need to determine the best approach for their responsive effort depending on how the coronavirus is impacting their area.”

Most public health officials believe that wearing masks is one of the most effective ways to protect against the spread of the virus, particularly in crowded, poorly ventilated public places that attract people from all over, like transportation venues. Many feel that the Trump administration has turned the wearing — or not wearing — of masks into a political expression, as seen most dramatically on Monday evening when President Trump whipped off his surgical mask at the White House door after returning from the hospital where he was treated for Covid-19.

“I think masks are the most powerful weapon we have to confront Covid and we all need to embrace masks and set the example for each other,” Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the C.D.C. director, who oversaw the drafting of the order, said in a recent interview.

Dr. Redfield has been publicly at odds with President Trump for promoting mask wearing along with social distancing, and for warning that a vaccine for the virus won’t be widely available until next year.

The thwarting of the mask rule is the latest in a number of C.D.C. actions stalled or changed by the White House. Late last month, the coronavirus task force overruled the C.D.C. director’s order to keep cruise ships docked until mid-February. That plan was opposed by the tourism industry in Florida, an important swing state in the presidential election. Political appointees at the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services have also been involved in rewriting the agency’s guidelines on reopening schools and testing for the virus, bypassing the agency’s scientists.

Some other members of the White House Task Force support a mask mandate. But others do not, among them Dr. Scott W. Atlas, a radiologist who has become Mr. Trump’s closest adviser on the coronavirus, and Mr. Pence, who runs the panel and sets the agenda.

Representative Peter A. DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon and chairman of the House committee on transportation and infrastructure, criticized Mr. Trump for ignoring public health experts from his own administration on the mask issue.

“It’s especially outrageous because the science is so clear: masks safe lives,” Mr. DeFazio said. “The millions of Americans who work in and use our transportation systems every day — from bus drivers, train conductors and flight attendants, to the frontline workers who rely on public transit — deserve to know their president is relying on experts’ best advice and doing everything possible to keep them safe.”

The transportation trades department of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., which represents 33 unions with what it describes as “millions” of transportation workers, said that the administration last week rejected its July petition to require passengers to wear masks on public transportation.

Larry Willis, president of the department, said his members were being endangered by a patchwork of rules regarding face coverings on airplanes, trains and buses around the country, as well as in airports, train stations and bus depots.

“Some airports are all in and they require masks when you walk in the door,” Mr. Willis said. “Some places where masks have become too politicized, the right mandates are not in place.”

“I think it creates an uncertain level of health and safety for workers and passengers,” he said. “This is a global pandemic, this is a national emergency. We should have a national standard.”

Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said that while airlines do technically require passengers to wear face coverings, enforcement can be difficult.

“If there is a requirement by regulation or law, then there’s typically a consequence for not following that regulation or law,” Ms. Nelson said. “So that gives us backing and it often serves as a deterrent from bad behavior.”

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