The president-elect will also encourage universal mask wearing for his first 100 days.
President-elect Joe Biden said on Thursday that he plans to require mask-wearing in federal buildings once he takes office.
During an extensive interview with CNN, Biden outlined his plans to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic after he is sworn in on January 20. “I'm going to issue a standing order that, in federal buildings, you have to be masked, and, in transportation, interstate transportation, you must be masked in airplanes and buses, et cetera,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper. Also, “I think my inclination, Jake, is, on the first day I'm inaugurated, is to say, I'm going to ask the public for 100 days to mask—just 100 days to mask—not forever.”
The General Services Administration, the federal government’s landlord, owns and leases more than 376 million square feet of space in 9,600 buildings nationwide. This includes offices, land ports of entry, courthouses, laboratories, post offices and data processing centers. The agency has an interactive map online that lets you search where these buildings are.
Biden made similar comments about mask wearing during the campaign and previously said he would require it on federal land. The federal government owns about 640 million acres, approximately 28% of the land in the country, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health experts strongly encourage mask wearing to protect both the wearer and others, along with social distancing and other precautions. On Friday, the agency recommended for the first time “universal face mask use” when indoors, not at home.
Currently, 37 states have varying forms of mask mandates, according to AARP’s tracker, some of which could cover federal property or land.
“The symbolism is good,” David Keating, a volunteer director of Masks4All, a volunteer group that is promoting mask usage to fight the pandemic, told Government Executive on Friday. “But the reality is what he is talking about in that interview is not going to have much real impact. Not many people are going inside federal buildings. Most interstate transportation is already covered by mask requirements by corporations – all major airlines, Amtrak, Greyhound Bus Lines, etc. require masks for passengers. That said, a federal rule would greatly help companies enforce it.”
Mask wearing has become politicized during the pandemic as various groups have protested and advocated against wearing them, citing civil liberties, doubts about the severity of the coronavirus and other reasons. Notably, President Trump has ridiculed Biden for wearing a mask and members of his inner circle have been widely criticized for failing to wear masks in settings where social distancing isn’t possible.
If Biden asks the public to wear masks for his first 100 days in office—until April 30—that would cover the period during which public health officials expect to administer the vaccine. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, predicted that all Americans could have access to a coronavirus vaccine by mid-April. On Friday, Fauci said on NBC’s “Today” show the 100 days suggestion was “a good idea.” Biden has asked Fauci to remain in his role after the inauguration as well as serve as the new administration’s chief medical advisor.
If Biden were to consider a nationwide mask requirement, that would be more challenging.
“Although a federal mask mandate may appear to be an attractive policy, it could encounter legal challenges, be difficult to enforce, and further politicize wearing of masks,” public health experts from Georgetown, Harvard and Emory universities wrote in a medical journal article in August. “It is not clear whether the CDC has the authority to mandate face coverings nationwide … Congress probably could enact a national mandate under the commerce power but has not done so. A federal mandate, moreover, might provoke political opposition to face coverings rooted in state sovereignty.”