WASHINGTON — In a little-noticed ruling on Friday evening, the Trump administration rejected a petition by a coalition of labor unions that had asked the federal government to require passengers to wear masks on airplanes, trains, and other major forms of transportation.
The Department of Transportation told the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO labor federation that the agency would not proceed with a regulation to mandate that passengers wear masks on modes of major commercial transportation used by tens of millions of Americans. Right now in the U.S., a patchwork of airport authorities, cities, counties, and states are deciding whether to require people to wear masks on mass transit, in airports, and on planes. France, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and other major countries have enacted national mask mandates for people using public transit.
“It is unfathomable that in the midst of a global pandemic which has killed more than 209,000 Americans, and left millions more sick and potentially facing lifelong side effects — including the president of the United States — that the U.S. Department of Transportation would outright reject such a simple, science-backed, lifesaving measure,” Transportation Trades Department president Larry Willis said in a statement. “The DOT’s decision is heartbreaking, and in light of yesterday’s news, frankly, shocking.”
Deregulation is one of the hallmarks of the Trump administration, even amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of the biggest backers of Trump’s 2016 campaign were corporate executives who pushed then-candidate Trump to embrace a full-on deregulatory agenda. Since taking office, the Trump administration has sought to weaken or reverse hundreds of existing policies and regulations related to energy, the environment, labor rights, health care, manufacturing, transportation, and agriculture.
What makes the Transportation Department’s mask-mandate rejection so telling is that it happened only hours after the White House revealed that President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump had tested positive for Covid-19. Other White House and senior GOP officials who have tested positive in recent days include senior aide Hope Hicks, adviser Kellyanne Conway, reelection campaign manager Bill Stepien, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, and Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), and Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.).
In a July letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Larry Willis, the president of the Transportation Trades Department, a coalition of 33 labor unions, said many of its workers — which include bus drivers, ferry operators, pilots, flight attendants, TSA employees, and more — were on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Regrettably, these employees have not been spared the effects of the disease, and each TTD union involved in passenger transportation has reported infections and deaths among their frontline workers,” Willis wrote to Chao.
Willis wrote that the “patchwork of state or local mandates,” combined with “a deeply inadequate federal response,” had left those frontline transportation workers vulnerable to the virus in their workplaces. The transportation union coalition formally petitioned Chao, who is the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the Transportation Department to create a legal requirement for passengers to wear masks. So far, the agency has voiced support for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance that passengers wear masks and has distributed more than 100 million masks, but has stopped short of mandating mask-wearing on a national scale.
Wearing a mask is one of the most effective ways to slow the spread of Covid-19. Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testified last month that a mask was “the most important, powerful public health tool we have.” Redfield told Congress that a mask might be even more effective than a vaccine because no vaccine has a 100 percent effectiveness rate.
“I will continue to appeal [to] all Americans, all individuals in our country, to embrace these face coverings,” Redfield said. “I’ve said it: If we did it for six, eight, 10, 12 weeks, we’d bring this pandemic under control. We have clear scientific evidence. They work, and they are our best defense.”
President Trump was asked at an ABC News town hall last month why he had not called for a national mask mandate. He replied with a long-winded answer that blamed former Vice President Joe Biden, who does hold elected office right now, for not calling for a mask mandate. Trump added that “By the way, a lot of people don’t want to wear masks. There are a lot of people that think the masks are not good.”
In its denial letter, the Transportation Department said it shared the transportation union’s concerns about the potential health impact of the pandemic on transportation workers, but said the need to avoid creating new regulations overrode those public-health concerns.
“The Department also embraces the notion that there should be no more regulations than necessary,” the agency’s general counsel, Steven Bradbury, writes. “We emphasize consideration of or regulatory solutions and have rigorous processes in place for optimal reassessment of existing regulations to ensure they remain cost justified and narrowly tailored to address an identified market failure.”
The letter continues, “At this time, the Departments view is that the measures discussed above, along with the ongoing efforts of key transportation stakeholders, are adequate to address the concerns identified in the petition without the intention of a rule-making process.”
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