Labor unions representing transportation workers formally asked the U.S. Department of Transportation this week to issue an emergency rule ordering passengers to wear masks on planes, buses and trains or be denied a ride.
Larry Willis, the president of the Transportation Trades Department, a coalition of 33 unions, wrote in the petition that the government needed to go beyond issuing guidance and set clear rules for the use of masks to protect workers and passengers from the coronavirus.
“This regulation should require that passengers wear masks covering the nose and mouth while on board buses, trains, airplanes, and passenger vessels, as well as in boarding areas and associated facilities including airports and stations,” Willis wrote to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Monday.
“The regulation should also make clear that a transportation provider has an obligation to refuse to transport any passenger who is unwilling to comply for reasons unrelated to a disability that would prevent them from doing so.”
The transportation department has been willing to waive existing safety rules at the request of industry groups to ease the transportation of freight on trucks, trains and airplanes. But Chao has said she doesn’t generally support the idea of writing new rules in response to the pandemic, saying they could prove difficult to undo once the crisis passes.
Nonetheless, Chao has said she supports guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that passengers on public transportation should wear masks, a position her office reiterated Tuesday. The department has also distributed almost 100 million masks to passengers.
Bus drivers, fight attendants, TSA officers and other transportation workers have found themselves on the front line of the pandemic, continuing to go to work and risking exposure to the virus. Willis wrote in his letter that every union he represents has had members fall ill and die.
In the absence of a single set of rules from the federal government, airlines and airports have been setting their own different standards for passengers and employees. In recent weeks, though, airlines have been toughening up their rules on masks and banning passengers who don’t comply.
Major transit agencies, too, require face coverings. In the Washington area, Metro officials told passengers to wear masks in May. New York requires masks on the subway and buses, as well as ferries and taxis.
But enforcing rules has sometimes proved tricky. In Philadelphia, authorities had to dial back their policy after officers were shown on video dragging a man from a bus.
In the petition, Willis said that the pandemic made it clear that the department had the power to issue a rule on an emergency basis, bypassing the need to take public comments, which might stretch the process out for months.
A rule is needed, he wrote, because the federal government could help with enforcement and because guidelines and policies adopted by private companies and have proven insufficient.
“Non-mandatory guidelines and a patchwork of mandates or additional guidelines from private companies, states, and other jurisdictions have failed to achieve the level of mask usage that is necessary,” Willis wrote.
Willis cited a case in China involving a person who began to feel ill during a bus ride but didn’t put on a mask, and infected five fellow passengers. In a second ride, the person did cover their face and no one else was infected.
“While anecdotal, this and a number of further epidemiological case studies point to the efficacy of wearing a mask to reduce transmission,” he wrote.
The transportation department’s unwillingness to set hard rules has frustrated some Democratic lawmakers.
At a hearing in June, when Steve Dickson, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, said that new guidelines would be forthcoming, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said rules were needed instead.
“Is this just a philosophical thing for you folks?” Schatz said. “I don’t get why you wouldn’t want this to be mandatory. I don’t understand why we’re going with a private-sector driven approach here or a voluntary approach.”