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US Department of Transportation rejected mask mandate on public transportation

As reported by Alexandra Kelly for The Hill 

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) rejected a petition from a labor union Friday that would issue a departmentwide mandate requiring all passengers on DOT-approved transportation to wear masks, underscoring the lack of universal health protocols deployed during the COVID-19 pandemic by the federal government.

In a letter dated Oct. 2, a petition created by Larry Willis, the president of Transportation Trades Department, a union within the AFL-CIO organization, was rejected for implementation as a rule on Department of Transportation-regulated commercial vehicles.

The petition reportedly urged the DOT to “promulgate a regulation mandating that passengers traveling with DOT-regulated commercial transportation providers wear masks or face coverings,” primarily out of concern for the health and safety of industry workers who conduct their jobs in frequently traveled public spaces with circulated air, putting them at an increased risk for contracting a COVID-19 infection.

Willis’s letter suggested the DOT issue a rule to strengthen the public health messaging mandating face masks.

The DOT opted to reject the petition, saying that it has already taken steps to educate both passengers and employees in concordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The Department shares the concerns expressed in the petition about the health and welfare of frontline transportation workers, whose services are invaluable and have helped keep America moving during the COVID-19 public health emergency,” the letter read.

The Transportation Trades Department (TTD) is composed of 33 unions across multiple sectors of transportation, including airline staff, TSA employees, ferry operators and bus drivers, all of which amount to several million workers.

Since the onset of the pandemic in March, the TTD has advocated for worker safety and for lawmakers to ensure transportation industry workers receive stimulus funding and health care amid layoffs and hazardous conditions.

Earlier in July, Willis and the TTD continued to ask for increased worker protections as front-line transportation workers became increasingly vulnerable as the economy attempted to reopen. The severity of the toll the pandemic has been taking on transit workers was chronicled in The Washington Post and The Guardian in spring.

In response to the decision on behalf of the DOT on Friday, Willis expressed disappointment.

“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,” Willis said in a statement reported on by Rolling Stone. “The DOT’s decision is heartbreaking, and in light of yesterday’s news, frankly, shocking.”

While the failed petition is another example of the lack of central regulation and inconsistent messaging that has characterized the U.S.’s approach to the coronavirus — comparable countries like France, Switzerland and the U.K. have enacted national mask mandates on public transportation, according to Rolling Stone — the DOT says it “embraces the notion that there should be no more regulations than necessary, and has adopted health care protocols recommended by the CDC and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).”

“The Department has been clear that all 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,” a DOT spokesperson told The Hill.

The spokesperson added that the DOT has distributed more than 100 million face masks to transit workers and passengers alike.

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