Leading Democrats in Congress, frustrated with what they say are inadequate protections against Covid-19 in air travel, introduced legislation to require the federal government to mandate face masks on flights and in airports.
The bill, unveiled on Thursday, would also force the government to create a national aviation preparedness plan for epidemics -- which is required under an international treaty but was never done in the U.S. -- and to ramp up government-sponsored study of how infectious diseases are transmitted on airliners.
"Covid-19 infections are spreading across this country like wildfire, yet the Trump administration refuses to enact basic public health protections for the tens of thousands of airline passengers who board airplanes each day," Representative Peter DeFazio, the Oregon Democrat who co-sponsored the bill and is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a release.
The law would authorize criminal penalties for passengers who disobey a flight crew's instructions to wear a mask on a plane and sets civil fines for people who don't wear masks in an airport.
The legislation is sponsored by 20 lawmakers, all Democrats, and comes as mask usage becomes increasingly political.
Democratic Senators including Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Ed Markey of Massachusetts have endorsed a mask requirement, but it's unclear whether such a bill could pass in the Republican-controlled chamber.
Many of President Donald Trump's supporters are hostile to masks and on Wednesday Representative Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican who refused to wear a mask in Congress, said he tested positive for Covid-19, prompting a face-covering mandate in the House.
The legislation was endorsed by multiple industry groups and unions, including two trade groups representing U.S. airports, the American Association of Airport Executives and Airports Council International. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and the Air Line Pilots Association also support the measure.
Even though all major U.S. airlines now require customers to cover their faces and have increased enforcement, incidents continue to occur in which passengers refuse or they wear them improperly.
A stricter requirement is needed to ensure public health, lawmakers have said.