Coronavirus

Ed Markey calls for federal rule requiring airplane passengers to wear masks

"A patchwork of rules simply cannot address the interconnected and widespread health risks of a global pandemic."

Mask-wearing travelers wheel their luggage toward the jetBlue Terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport's Terminal 5, Saturday, March 14, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) Kathy Willens / AP, File

This week, JetBlue became the first American airline to announce that passengers will be required to wear face coverings.

Sen. Ed Markey wants the rest to follow suit.

In a letter Wednesday, the Massachusetts senator and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a fellow Democrat from Connecticut, called on federal officials to issue an emergency rule requiring all individuals engaged in air travel to wear a face mask during the coronavirus pandemic.

While most airlines already require flight crews to wear a mask, they’re only going so far to encourage passengers to do the same; some are even offering to provide their customers with masks.

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“Although these practices represent progress, we believe that a strong nationwide rule is required for this inherently interstate issue, and to prevent a patchwork of conflicting policies from undermining overall public health,” the senators wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

The coronavirus has brought air travel to a near standstill, with airports across the country — including Logan Airport in Boston — reporting a drop in passenger screenings of around 95 percent. But as Markey and Blumenthal note, that still leaves “a significant number” of planes in the sky; over the past three weeks, the TSA has reported around 100,000 daily screenings, which have begun to tick upwards in recent days.

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Given the unique potential of airplanes — as tightly enclosed spaces that travel all over the country — to spread respiratory diseases, Markey and Blumenthal said a “single, strong standard” is needed to mitigate the ongoing risks.

As part of the rule, the senators say the federal government should also provide “a sufficient supply of disposable cloth or paper masks” for airports to give to passengers.

“Even though passengers on JetBlue are now required to wear a face mask while traveling, they can remove it when they reach certain airports,” they wrote. “At that time, they will encounter flyers from other airlines who may not have been required to wear a mask and who may have been exposed to the disease. These passengers will then go to their respective destinations and potentially endanger others, despite the precautions of a single airline. A patchwork of rules simply cannot address the interconnected and widespread health risks of a global pandemic.”

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending earlier this month that all Americans wear a cloth face covering in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, given evidence that a significant percentage of people infected are asymptomatic and could unwittingly spread the disease.

In an April 17 guidance, the Federal Aviation Administration said that airplane crew members should “consider” wearing a cloth face covering. The agency also advised airlines to provide medical-grade surgical masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment so that cabin crews can deal with sick passengers.

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Markey and Blumenthal say PPE for airline employees should also be a requirement.

“DOT and HHS should specifically require airlines to provide surgical masks, N95 respirators, or other personal protective equipment sufficient to protect their employees,” the senators wrote, though they acknowledged that “the provision of N95 respirators to industries other than health care providers will necessarily be dependent on a sufficient availability of resources.”

Due to the shortage of PPE, officials have scrambled to prioritize medical-grade masks and gloves for hospitals and other workers on the front lines of the pandemic.

“Flight attendants are aviation’s first responders, required by federal regulations to help ensure the safety, health, and security of our globally-interconnected aviation system,” Sara Nelson, the president of the the Association of Flight Attendants, wrote in a letter last week to Chao and Azar, requesting a similar federal rule requiring travelers on planes and in airports to wear masks, as well as PPE for employees.

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In addition to the risk of air travel spreading the disease across the country, Nelson noted that at least 250 of the union’s members have tested positive for the coronavirus. According to The Los Angeles Times, at least 15 airline workers died due to COVID-19 during a nine-day span earlier this month.

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