Newly minted President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., took a break from his inauguration festivities on Wednesday to sign a flurry of executive orders, several of which included policy changes amid the surging COVID-19 pandemic.
In one of his first actions as president, Biden signed a mask mandate, requiring face masks be worn inside buildings and on land controlled by the federal government. That includes places like national parks and during interstate travel onboard trains, buses, and planes.
Although the majority of U.S. airports and airlines have their own stringent mask rules in place—with major carriers banning passengers who don’t comply—leaders in the air travel industry have been pushing for a federal mask mandate throughout the pandemic.
“There is a big difference between a policy and a federal mandate,” Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association union, told aviation site Cirium. “A company policy doesn’t carry as much weight. When you use the words ‘federal mandate’ it gets attention.”
The order also includes a “100 Days Masking Challenge,” to encourage Americans to commit to wearing masks for at least 100 days and compels federal workers and contractors to follow other social-distancing guidelines recommended by the CDC. While the executive order does not have the authority to change mask policies in individual cities or states, Biden “will call on governors, public health officials, mayors, business leaders, and others to implement masking, physical distancing, and other public measures to control COVID-19,” Jeff Zients, who is coordinating the new administration’s pandemic response, told CNN.
The new mask rules are in stark contrast to the messaging of former President Donald Trump, whose administration flouted public health experts’ advice and never enacted comprehensive nationwide mask requirements.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Biden had vowed to make the COVID-19 outbreak a primary focus of his presidency. Among the executive orders he signed on Wednesday were extensions to pandemic relief policies, including the freeze on federal student loan payments, which has been extended through September, and the CDC’s eviction moratorium, extended through March.
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