CDC Mask Mandate: What to Know About Changes to Public and Commercial Travel

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a sweeping mask mandate for Americans using transportation as part of the effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The 11-page order issued on Friday night will make it a federal offense not to wear masks on public and commercial transport. The mandate will take effect at 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday.

The order applies to trains, buses, planes, boats, ferries, subways and ride-hail vehicles. It will also take effect in transport hubs such as train stations, bus depots and airport terminals.

The mask mandate will not apply military vehicles, commercial trucks or children under two years of age.

Transportation workers and operators will also be required to wear masks. Travelers will be allowed to eat and drink briefly with their masks off.

"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 order, which was signed by Marty Cetron, director for CDC's Division of Global Migration and Quarantine.

Those refusing to wear masks in compliance with the order could potentially face criminal charges but the CDC suggested it was more likely that violators would incur civil penalties, according to Reuters. The CDC also said they would largely rely on "widespread voluntary compliance."

The new order may make it easier for flight attendants to enforce mask-wearing on airplanes following a number of incidents involving passengers refusing to do so. This refusal will now carry the risk of legal consequences from Monday.

The CDC's mandate follows President Joe Biden's executive order on January 21 aimed at promoting safety in domestic and international travel. The president has made major use of his executive authority since assuming office.

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Surgeon General, and the National Institutes of Health have concluded that mask-wearing, physical distancing, appropriate ventilation, and timely testing can mitigate the risk of travelers spreading COVID-19," Biden's executive order read.

"Accordingly, to save lives and allow all Americans, including the millions of people employed in the transportation industry, to travel and work safely, it is the policy of my Administration to implement these public health measures consistent with CDC guidelines on public modes of transportation and at ports of entry to the United States."

Under former President Donald Trump, the CDC did not issue a mask mandate for travel but did strongly recommend face masks for passengers and commuters. Trump resisted efforts from Congress to introduce a mask mandate of this kind.

Person Wearing a Mask in Times Square
A person wears a face mask outside the MTA subway station in Times Square as the city continues the re-opening efforts following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus on November 25, 2020 in New York City. The CDC has issued a mask mandate for public and commercial transport. Noam Galai/Getty Images