Biden will order masks on planes and trains, increase disaster funds to fight coronavirus

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Joe Biden will sign 10 executive orders on Thursday to fight the coronavirus pandemic, including directing that disaster funds be used to help reopen schools and requiring that people wear masks on planes and buses, officials said.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden signs executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, after his inauguration as the 46th President of the United States, U.S., January 20, 2021. REUTERS/Tom Brenner/File Photo

Biden, a Democrat who took over from Republican President Donald Trump on Wednesday, has promised a fierce fight against the pandemic that killed 400,000 people in the United States under Trump’s watch.

“We’re entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus and must set aside politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation,” the president said in his inauguration speech.

One order will require mask-wearing in airports and on certain modes of public transportation, including many trains, airplanes and intercity buses, officials said.

He also plans to sign orders on Thursday to establish a COVID-19 testing board to ramp up testing, address supply shortfalls, establish protocols for international travelers and direct resources for minority communities hit hard by the infectious disease.

He plans to direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse states and Native American tribes fully for the costs associated with National Guard and emergency supply efforts to combat the virus. Biden’s measures also restore “full reimbursement” from the FEMA Disaster Relief Fund for costs related to reopening schools.

FEMA funds are typically disbursed after hurricanes, floods or other natural disasters. Institutions including hospitals can apply after Trump declared the pandemic a national emergency in March.

The fund had previously been reimbursing 75% of costs.

“This is a national emergency and we need to treat it accordingly,” Jeff Zients, coordinator of the Biden White House’s coronavirus response, said on a call with reporters.

Biden plans to partner with state and local governments to establish vaccination spots in conference centers, stadiums and gymnasiums.

The new administration will also deploy thousands of clinical staff from federal agencies, military medical personnel and pharmacy chains to increase vaccinations, and make teachers and grocery clerks eligible.

Vaccination programs have lagged far behind the target of 20 million Americans inoculated by the end of 2020.

The administration may invoke the Defense Production Act for speedy vaccine distribution after an inventory of essential items needed to fight the pandemic.

“We have identified 12 immediate supply shortfalls that are critical for the pandemic response right now,” said Tim Manning, the administration’s new COVID-19 supply coordinator.

Reporting by Nandita Bose and Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Peter Cooney