En español | Properties and lands controlled by the federal government — including iconic monuments such as the Statue of Liberty and national parks such as the Grand Canyon — will require those who visit or work there to wear masks. Masks also must be worn by everyone age 2 and older on public transportation (planes, trains, ferries, buses) and at transportation hubs like airports.
In an executive order he signed on Jan. 21, President Joe Biden made “masking up” a signature piece of his pandemic-ending plan, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has made the rules effective today. Refusing to wear a face covering in these settings is therefore now a violation of federal law, and could result in a $250 fine and up to $1,500 for repeated violations.
Travelers arriving from other countries, meanwhile, are required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure and to quarantine once they arrive, according to new CDC guidelines. (The CDC suggests a seven-day quarantine for those arriving from outside the U.S.) The directive calls on federal agencies to begin discussions with the governments of Mexico and Canada about possible infection-prevention protocols for entry by land, as well as a plan from the Department for Homeland Security for safe entry by sea.
The CDC has long recommended that the federal government implement mask requirements as an effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has now claimed more than 463,000 lives in the U.S. The new requirements — part of the White House’s “100 days mask challenge” to slow the spread of the coronavirus — are one element of a national plan that’s billed as a “road map to guide America out of the worst public health crisis in a century.” Along with mask wearing for infection prevention, the plan includes strategies to accelerate the pace of vaccinations.
Here’s a breakdown of the rules for travelers.
Visitors to all 423 sites managed by the Department of the Interior, including national parks and monuments such as Mount Rushmore, will need to wear face coverings. Previously, there was no blanket mandate, only strong encouragement that visitors wear masks. The National Park Service (NPS) clarified the order with a statement on Feb. 2, noting that masks are not only required in NPS-managed buildings but also outside “when physical distancing cannot be maintained, including narrow or busy trails, overlooks and historic homes.”
Because airlines already require that passengers and crew members wear masks, it may not seem like much will change for travelers who fly. But flight attendants and pilots unions have asked for a federal requirement to add teeth to their own rules.
While the majority of travelers follow mask rules, there have been hundreds who’ve refused, according to airlines; in December, Delta reported that it had banned nearly 700 people from future flights for refusing to wear masks. There have also been reports of flight attendants being harassed and threatened while trying to enforce their airlines’ mask requirements.
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It’s unclear whether the federal mandate will help prevent such incidents, but advocates are hopeful: The pilots union Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) wrote on Twitter (@WeAreAlpa), “We agree” with the new requirement. “An enforceable mask mandate for passengers is key to protecting #frontline #aviation workers, restoring public trust in our air transportation network, and rebuilding the US economy.”
The Association of Flight Attendants was also pleased; its president, Sara Nelson, released a statement that the “executive order on a mask mandate for interstate travel, including airports and airplanes, will provide much-needed backup for flight attendants and aviation workers on the front lines.”
Many airports already require masks (except when travelers are eating or drinking) under their state’s or city’s law. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, for one, requires travelers to wear masks in the terminal, in accordance with the Atlanta ordinance. Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport also requires masks, following Minnesota law.
Amtrak already requires passengers age 2 and older to wear masks, and the company warns that it reserves the right to remove noncompliant passengers or bar them from future travel. Amtrak public relations manager Marc Magliari adds, however, “a federal directive that passengers are required to comply with would reinforce our current policy.”
People will need to wear masks on buses and on any other form of public transportation between states. This applies “while boarding, disembarking and for the duration of travel,” according to the executive order.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on January 21. It's been updated to reflect new information about the mask mandate.
Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.