White House Blocked C.D.C. From Mandating Masks on Public Transit

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Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

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.”

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.

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 save 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.”

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