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A U.S. senator kept taking off his mask on a Delta flight, raising questions about safety oversight

As reported by Michael Laris and Lori Aratani for The Washington Post

The chairman of the Senate committee that oversees airlines and U.S. transportation policy had his mask off for extended periods on a Delta flight to Mississippi on Thursday night, according to another passenger, and the company said he had to be reminded twice by a flight attendant to follow the airline’s mask requirement.

The next day, the Trump administration rejected a union petition calling for a federal mandate requiring masks be worn on planes, trains and buses, saying the Department of Transportation “embraces the notion that there should be no more regulations than necessary.”

The developments bracketed President Trump’s own announcement early Friday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus and undercut safety assurances from top Republican policymakers who say federal mandates should take a back seat to state, local and private actions in fighting the coronavirus, union officials and others said.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) was on a Delta flight to Jackson on Thursday when he was spotted with his mask off by passenger Matt Harringer, a Democratic media consultant.

Harringer provided three time-stamped photos — one at 8:37 p.m. while the plane was on the ground, one at 9:27 and one at 9:46, as the plane was preparing for landing — showing Wicker with a blue surgical mask hanging beneath his mouth or under his chin.

Delta, which has banned more than 400 people for refusing to wear masks while flying, said it takes its mask mandate very seriously. The company — which is overseen by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which Wicker chairs — offered no criticism of the senator Monday.

“In this case, all customers followed all crew member instructions regarding our mask requirements,” Delta spokeswoman Lisa Hanna said in a statement.

Hanna said Delta does not dispute the time-stamped photos but added that the flight attendant recalled just two instances during the flight in which Wicker wasn’t wearing his mask properly. She asked the senator to adjust it in both cases, which he did, Hanna said.

Rick VanMeter, Wicker’s communications director, said the senator “lowered his face mask to eat a snack and forgot to put it back up. When he was reminded by a flight attendant, he put the mask back up.”

But, Harringer said, “the flight attendant shouldn’t have to remind a United States senator to wear his mask.”

Harringer added that passengers and crew members deserve to know if Wicker will be tested for the virus, and his results, particularly given the large number of top Republicans and Trump allies who have tested positive for the virus in recent days.

VanMeter did not answer questions about whether Wicker had been tested before or after the flight, or about the multiple photographs showing Wicker without a face covering.

“He did not attend any recent events at the White House and has not been in contact with any of the individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days,” VanMeter said.

Photos of Wicker maskless on the flight were posted on social media, and many accused Delta of a double standard — one for lawmakers and another for the regular public, noting that the airline has turned planes around at the gate and removed passengers who refused to wear masks.

The criticism continued when it was learned that three Minnesota congressmen boarded a Delta flight home from Washington on Friday, just two days after having been on board Air Force One with Trump, who traveled to Duluth for a rally. Trump’s positive test result was made public Friday morning.

The congressmen — Reps. Pete Stauber, Tom Emmer and Jim Hagedorn — and Delta said the airline was aware of the lawmakers’ time aboard Trump’s plane but that they tested negative for the coronavirus before their flight and were assessed by Delta’s medical consultants before being allowed to fly.

Delta’s policy appeared straightforward.

“To protect the safety of all our customers, we cannot allow anyone to fly who knows they have been exposed to COVID-19 in the past two weeks,” the policy says. “To travel with us, you must agree that you are not aware that you and, to your knowledge, those in your itinerary have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 in the past 14 days.”

In a statement, Delta pointed to measures taken before the flight departed that cleared the representatives to fly.

Jacob Murphy, a spokesman for Hagedorn, said the congressman consulted directly with Brian P. Monahan, the attending physician for Congress, who advised him that he did not meet the criteria of “close contact” with the president, which includes being within   six   feet   for   more   than 15 minutes. Even so, Hagedorn was tested as an “extreme precaution,” and the results were negative.

In a statement, Stauber said he also consulted with Congress’s office of the attending physician.

“After a full assessment, the doctor determined I had a low risk of exposure and that I should continue my normal duties, including voting on the House floor and travel,” he said. Stauber said he was tested on Friday, the second test in 72 hours, and the results of both tests were negative. He said his office consulted with Delta to ensure he met all travel protocols, including a confirmed negative coronavirus test that permitted him to fly.

“I met all of Delta Air Lines’ protocols and safety measures, which is why the flight was allowed to take off with me on board,” Stauber said.

Emmer’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Hanna, the Delta spokeswoman, said Delta’s medical consultants “conducted additional screening measures, including assessing symptoms, distance and time spent with someone who tests positive, and whether the individual has been asked by a health official to quarantine.”

“All of these conditions were met,” she said.

In July, the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO called for a federal mandate making one safety measure — mask-wearing — mandatory.

The group’s petition requested that the Transportation Department temporarily require mask usage on airlines, passenger vessels, subways and commuter trains, school buses, motor coaches, and at stations and airports.

Efforts to protect transportation workers “from inherently hazardous workplaces and the threat of deadly communicable disease have been limited to a patchwork of state or local mandates, and a deeply inadequate federal response consisting of non-mandatory guidance,” according to the petition.

But the Transportation Department’s general counsel, Steven G. Bradbury, wrote Friday, in denying the petition, that “most State, local, and private sector transportation entities have adopted policies requiring face mask usage.”

Such efforts, along with the “continual reassessment of existing regulations,” are adequate, he wrote.

“The decision by the administration here is both tone deaf and stubborn,” said Larry Willis, president of the Transportation Trades Department, whose 33 affiliated unions include those representing pilots, flight attendants, transit workers, sailors and others. And for it to be announced “on the day the president himself announced that he tested positive for the coronavirus is absolutely ridiculous.”

In a statement, the Department of Transportation said that “DOT is not a public health authority” and that officials there defer to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Passengers “should follow the requirements of local public health authorities and the CDC’s guidance, for their own protection and the protection of those around them, including wearing face coverings,” according to the statement. The department notes that all passenger airlines and most transit systems require masks.

At an online forum Saturday with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and workers from the Amalgamated Transit Union, union president John A. Costa held a moment of silence “for our 89 brothers and sisters who have lost their lives to covid-19.”

Biden said, “We need a nationwide mask guidance so that no one gets on a public transportation unit without a mask. When they turned that request down, the Department of Transportation, they made a gigantic mistake.”

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