Trump administration blocked CDC transit mask mandate, report shows

A subway rider passes ads for face masks at Times Square station in Manhattan, as the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in New York City, U.S., November 14, 2020. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs/

WASHINGTON, Oct 17 (Reuters) - Former President Donald Trump's administration at a crucial time in the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 blocked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from adopting a federal mandate requiring face masks on airline flights and other forms of transit, a congressional report released on Monday said.

Marty Cetron, a senior CDC official, is cited in the report as saying the federal public health agency began working on the proposed order in July 2020 after its experts determined that there was scientific evidence to support requiring masks in public and commercial transportation.

The report was released by a Democratic-led House of Representatives subcommittee examining pandemic-related issues.

The proposed order would have required masks on public and commercial transportation modes and hubs like airports, airplanes, trains and ride-sharing vehicles, Cetron said.

By July 2020, major airlines, regional transit systems and some airports had taken action on their own to mandate masks to try to curb the spread of COVID-19. But the report stated that CDC had heard from the transit industry that it wanted the federal government to issue a mandate.

Cetron, who heads the CDC's division of global migration and quarantine, said the agency was told by Trump administration officials that a mask requirement on mass transportation "would not happen," according to the report. Cetron also told the panel that masking requirements "could have made a significant contribution" to saving U.S. lives from COVID-19 in 2020.

The report quoted Cetron as saying Alex Azar and Robert Redfield, who at the time headed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC respectively, both had expressed support for the proposed order.

With more than a million deaths, the United States leads the world in reported COVID-19 fatalities. Democrats have accused Trump of overseeing a disjointed response to the pandemic. Trump himself was hospitalized with COVID-19 later in 2020.

Days after President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, the CDC issued a sweeping order requiring face masks on nearly all forms of public transportation.

Cetron, who remains at the CDC, and an agency spokesperson declined to comment on Monday.

Reuters reported in July 2020 that the Trump administration had held extensive talks about whether the CDC should issue an order requiring transportation masking. The Trump White House instead announced that it opposed any efforts by Congress to require masks in transit. Trump was seeking re-election at the time. Many U.S. conservatives opposed government mandates requiring masks during the pandemic.

Representative James Clyburn, who chairs the House committee, said the report shows that Trump's administration "engaged in an unprecedented campaign of political interference in the federal government's pandemic response, which undermined public health to benefit the former president's political goals."

The Biden administration's transportation mask mandates were challenged in court. A Florida-based federal judge in April declared the order unlawful and lifted it. The administration has appealed the ruling. A U.S. appeals court has tentatively set arguments in the case for January.

The House report also said Trump's administration rejected a CDC plan to extend a no-sail order for cruise ships through the winter of 2020-2021 and instead issued a conditional order requiring the cruise industry to complete incremental steps before resuming operations.

The report cited Redfield as saying then-Vice President Mike Pence made the decision not to extend the no-sail order following lobbying from the industry and its allies.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Will Dunham

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