WASHINGTON - The Transportation Security Administration now requires travelers to wear masks at airport screening checkpoints and throughout public transportation systems as the country faces new and more contagious variants of the coronavirus.
Beginning Feb. 2, passengers over the age of 2 without a mask may be denied entry through the TSA checkpoint. Failure to comply with the mask requirement could also result in a fine. The requirement remains effective through May 11.
"Passengers who refuse to wear a mask will not be permitted to enter the secure area of the airport, which includes the terminal and gate area," the TSA said in a statement. "Depending on the circumstance, those who refuse to wear a mask may be subject to a civil penalty for attempting to circumvent screening requirements, interfering with screening personnel, or a combination of those offenses."
Exemptions include travelers younger than age 2 and those with a disability who cannot wear a mask.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) previously authorized the TSA to implement an executive order issued last month by President Joe Biden, which mandated masks on certain modes of public transportation including planes and trains, and it mandated masks on federal property.
FILE - A TSA worker wears a mask while helping travelers get through a security checkpoint at the Miami International Airport on Nov. 22, 2020 in Miami, Florida. (David Santiago/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also issued a mask-wearing rule Jan. 29, building on Biden’s order, requiring travelers on airplanes and public transportation like buses and subways to wear face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19.
"TSA will fully comply with the President’s Executive Orders, CDC guidance and the DHS National Emergency determination to ensure healthy and secure travel across all transportation sectors," said Darby LaJoye, a senior official performing the duties of the TSA Administrator. "This will help prevent further spread of COVID-19 and encourage a unified government response."
The CDC order, which went into effect Feb. 1, states that passengers on airplanes, trains, buses, subways, ships, ferries, taxis and ride-shares must wear a mask that covers their nose and mouth while getting on such vehicles, during the ride and while getting off. Masks must stay on while people await, board, travel and disembark public transportation.
The CDC order prompts drivers, conductors and crew members to only transport people who are wearing masks.
Commercial airlines already require passengers and crew members to wear masks throughout check-in, boarding and during the flight.
As the country continues the rollout of vaccines, new and more contagious variants that emerged from Brazil, the U.K. and South Africa have all been reported in the U.S. — complicating efforts to combat the pandemic.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said last week that the increasing spread of multiple coronavirus variants should serve as a "wake-up call," stressing the need for vaccine companies to be ready to make new versions of the shots if needed.
Nationwide, the coronavirus has already sickened 26 million and killed roughly 441,000 Americans, data from Johns Hopkins University shows.
Biden reinstated COVID-19 travel restrictions on most non-U.S. travelers from Brazil, the U.K. and South Africa due to the variants. The CDC also said all international travelers, including U.S. citizens traveling from abroad, must test negative for COVID-19 or provide proof of recovery before boarding a flight heading to America.
This story was reported from Cincinnati.