Three days after transportation workers complained to a House panel about the lack of enforceable standards to protect workers and passengers from COVID-19, the federal government announced it would distribute nearly 100 million cloth facial coverings to aviation, transit and passenger rail transportation sectors for passengers to use.
The cloth masks, distributed via a partnership between the departments of Transportation, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services, were secured by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
About 86.8 million of the masks will go to airports, and 9.6 million will be distributed to 458 transit agencies and Amtrak for passenger use. They’ll be distributed via the Postal Service.
That distribution comes after the Trump administration announced May 28 it would distribute some 15.5 million cloth facial coverings to critical infrastructure workers.
Witnesses told two different congressional panels this month that they want the federal government to create enforceable standards to compel passengers to wear masks. The government has created guidelines via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but neither the DOT nor the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has required workers or passengers to wear masks, and labor unions have complained that different employers are inconsistent on what they require.
DOT’s role in the current distribution is to help FEMA get the masks to the correct place, such as providing shipping addresses for transit agencies. The department has consistently argued that it would be inappropriate for the DOT to weigh in on a public health issue.
“As we have said repeatedly, the department supports CDC’s guidelines to wear face coverings while on an airplane or using mass transit,” a DOT spokesman said. “CDC is the public health agency who makes these determinations. DOT is not a public health agency.”
At a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing Tuesday, Susannah Carr, a United Airlines flight attendant testifying on behalf of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, argued that requiring masks on airplanes during the pandemic would be just as reasonable a safety response as banning smoking or requiring seat belt use.
She argued that the federal government creating an enforceable standard would help customers come to expect that they’d need a mask regardless of which airline they flew.
Democratic lawmakers have been sympathetic to labor complaints. Sens. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., on Tuesday sent a letter to both DOT and HHS to urge the agencies to write “enforceable” rules to protect the flying public, including requiring face masks for travelers, providing personal protective equipment for crew members and setting strong cleaning protocols.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., sent a May 11 letter to Vice President Mike Pence, as head of the administration's COVID-19 task force, and a May 18 letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao making a similar request.
Cantwell is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which heard complaints about transportation worker safety at a June 3 hearing.
But Chao told Politico on June 1 that the issue is one of “labor management” and that the industry should take the lead in protecting workers, arguing that the federal government tended to be “much more heavy-handed.”
The DOT in its Friday announcement said the masks for travelers would be “supplemental” and that passengers are responsible for having their own facial coverings per existing guidance from airlines, airports, transit agencies and passenger rail authorities.
Larry Willis, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, said Tuesday that while the union appreciated the masks given to workers in late May, he was hopeful that the department would draft safety requirements.
"Getting masks out to front-line workers is great, and we're supportive of that," he said. "But if there are not real mandates to make sure employers are doing the right things and protecting workers, then we're not doing enough."