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Mask Rules for TSA Officers Have Been Relaxed  

TSA was one of the federal agencies particularly impacted by the pandemic. 

Now that the federal mask mandate for airplanes and other forms of public transportation was struck down in court, Transportation Security Administration officers only have to wear masks in certain situations. 

The Justice Department said on Wednesday it will appeal the ruling by a federal judge in Florida, after an assessment by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But in the meantime, TSA said it won’t enforce the mask mandate for travelers. For the TSA workforce it's a little different, though the circumstances in which employees are required to wear masks are narrower than before. 

“Prior to the ruling, [transportation security officers] were required to wear their masks no matter what the [COVID-19] community level was,” Daniel Velez, TSA spokesperson, told Government Executive on Friday. “Once the ruling came down, a new directive came out that stated that when the COVID-19 community level is low or medium, TSOs have the option to wear a mask, they do not have to wear one. But if they are in an area where it’s high, which is very few counties across the country…then they have to wear the mask.” This is the same for contractors and visitors who are with TSA employees. 

There is one caveat. “Some states or local areas are still instituting mask mandates, like the state of New York. So, in the state of New York our TSOs when they’re working in the security screening area, they have to wear their masks,” Velez said. 

As for TSA office workers, that’s up to the individual offices, he said, also noting this is a very “fluid” situation. 

Government Executive obtained the new administrative directive, which took effect on Tuesday, from the TSA union, which says: “Employees whose duties require contact with the public, to include transportation security officers, must wear a TSA-issued surgical mask, or may voluntarily wear an N-95 or a KN-95 respirator, when working in TSA operational workspace in an area with a high COVID-19 Community Level.”

Designated local officials must look at the COVID-19 community levels weekly and adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force’s guidelines. 

“In areas with high COVID-19 Community Levels, employees do not have to wear a mask when alone in an individual office, provided the office is fully enclosed with floor to ceiling walls and the door to the office is closed,” said the directive in the section on exceptions. “If another individual enters the office, even if the door remains open, a mask must be worn until that individual exits the office.” 

Hydrick Thomas, president of the TSA division of the American Federation of Government Employees, told Government Executive that he personally thinks everyone should wear masks “until we’re free from the virus,” in the interest of safety, but ultimately, it’s up to his members to do what's best for them when it’s not required. He hopes to meet with TSA officials on Monday to clear up any confusion where state and federal directives differ. 

Putting the recent ruling aside, the various changes in mask guidance have been very confusing, Thomas added. 

Early on in the pandemic, hundreds of TSA officers opted to skip work due to fears of contacting COVID-19 and then, like other federal agencies with significant portions of their workforces on the front lines, TSA faced a surge of COVID-19. In the fall of 2021, there were concerns from lawmakers and union officials about ​​disruptions to air travel during the holiday seasons, in part due to the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for federal employees. 

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