On Thursday, in a wide-ranging speech outlining aggressive steps to curb the spread of the coronavirus, President Biden announced that the Transportation Security Administration would double fines for travelers who refuse to wear masks in airports and on commercial airplanes.
“If you break the rules, be prepared to pay — and by the way, show some respect,” Mr. Biden said, referencing the change in policy as well as the many incidents in recent months of rude passengers who refused to mask up on domestic flights.
As of Friday, penalties for first-time offenders have been raised to a minimum of $500. Second-time mask refusers may be fined as much as $3,000.
Many flight attendants and travelers responded enthusiastically online to the declaration.
But the announcement also raised a few critical questions, namely how enforcement of these fines works.
Since February, when the T.S.A. first announced that everyone — except children under 2 and people with some disabilities — is required, by law, to wear masks on airplanes and in airports in the United States, the agency has received more than 4,000 reports of mask related incidents, according to R. Carter Langston, a T.S.A. spokesman.
However, only 126 people have faced fines, he said.
Also, though one might come away from Mr. Biden’s announcement with the belief that T.S.A. officers at airports are responsible for fining noncompliant travelers, that’s generally not the case, said Becky Esquivel, a T.S.A. officer at the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas and the vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1250, a union representing government employees at 12 airports in Arizona and Nevada. Though T.S.A. agents may ask people to put their masks on while screening their luggage at security, they do not have the ability to issue a ticket to someone who refuses on the spot. Nor do T.S.A. agents step onto airplanes, where many of the most tense mask encounters have occurred.
“We’re not the mask police,” Ms. Esquivel said.
So who are the “mask police?”
This depends on where someone is when they are not properly wearing a mask. The federal mask mandate applies not only to airports and airplanes, but also to trains, buses and other forms of public transportation.
At airport checkpoints, T.S.A. agents are supposed to remind people to wear masks, according to Mr. Langston, the agency spokesman. If those individuals flat-out refuse, the agent can deny them entry to the gate.
Typically, politely asking people to pull up their masks or cover their noses correctly does the job, Ms. Esquivel said, perhaps because it’s clear that if they break the rules at that point they are not getting anywhere near their flight.
Beyond the checkpoint area, however, T.S.A. agents are no longer involved in mask enforcement. If someone is waiting in a crowded boarding area without a mask, the responsibility falls to local law enforcement and airport employees to intervene, according to Mr. Langston.
Once passengers board their plane, the flight attendants are supposed to be the enforcers of mask rules. Flight attendants do not decide if someone is fined; they are simply tasked with encouraging that person to put a mask back on and then deciding whether to report the incident if the passenger does not comply.
Flight attendants don’t have a direct line to the T.S.A. or the F.A.A., the two agencies that can decide whether to impose a fine, said Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. Typically, they report the incident to someone on the flight deck, who reports it to an air traffic controller on the ground, who reports it to a supervisor who may report it to the T.S.A. or the F.A.A., as well as to the law enforcement body in charge of that particular airport, depending on the nature of the incident.
“It can break down anywhere along the way,” she said.
Ms. Nelson applauded Mr. Biden’s statement about the increased fines, as it signaled to passengers that they must wear masks and respect flight attendants, and because it encouraged the people involved in the reporting process to take these incidents seriously.
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Who decides when a complaint becomes a fine?
Once a complaint has been filed, compliance staff members working for the T.S.A. evaluate the incident and determine the penalty, Mr. Langston said. They examine such details as how many times the passenger was told to wear a mask and how the passenger responded to the reminder.
Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.
- Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
- Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
- New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement does not begin until Sept. 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
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