Mask Mandate Federalized, Extended On Waterways

In his first weeks in office, the administration of President Joe Biden hit the ground running, issuing a flurry of executive orders that outpaced those issued by President Donald Trump in his first days. One of those orders, 13998, mandated the wearing of masks on all “public maritime vessels, including ferries” to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. It was quickly followed by an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Requirement for Persons to Wear Masks while On Conveyances and on Transportation Hubs.”

On February 1, the Coast Guard issued Marine Safety Information Bulletin (MSIB) 02-21, “COVID-19 Safety Requirements in the Maritime Transportation System.” The MSIB, signed by Rear Adm. Richard V. Timme, Coast Guard assistant commandant for prevention policy, requires “conveyance operators” to use “best efforts” to require that “any person ensure that any person on the conveyance wears a mask when boarding, disembarking and for the duration of travel.” Operators are required to monitor compliance with mask-wearing,  and to remove anyone not complying at the earliest opportunity. The MSIB states, “Vessels that have not implemented the mask requirement may be issued a Captain of the Port order directing the vessel’s movement and operations; repeated failure to impose the mask mandate could result in civil penalties and/or criminal action.”

Questions about the MSIB may be sent to the Coast Guard Office of Commercial Vessel Compliance at

Since the advent of COVID-19, towing vessels have instituted and operated stringent safety procedures. Basing procedures on guidance from the CDC, they have put in place sanitization and mask-wearing policies and procedures, and quarantined employees exposed to COVID-19.

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In a February 4 email, the American Waterways Operators told members, “[T]he Coast Guard has reaffirmed to us the agency’s intent to enforce the CDC order in a reasonable and risk-based way to achieve the policy goal of reducing COVID-19 transmission risks while recognizing that there are situations in which mask-wearing is impracticable or unnecessary. We encourage you to review your company’s policies and procedures for mask-wearing to ensure that they effectively mitigate any COVID-19 transmission risks specific to your company’s operations that you have identified.”

Del Wilkins, president of Illinois Marine Towing Inc. and vice chairman of AWO, testified February 9 before the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation on the state of the industry.

“From the beginning of the pandemic,” he said, “the overriding priority of our industry was taking the necessary steps to protect mariners from COVID-19 while keeping vessels in service to protect the continuity of the national supply chain that these mariners support. Industry best practices, based on guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Coast Guard, were quickly put in place and served as the foundation of our resilience. However, as a result of the heightened prevalence of COVID in the general population, towing companies are seeing increased incidences of exposure and infection off the job, which keeps mariners and other front-line maritime transportation workers from reporting to work. We are working hard to avoid disruption to regular vessel operations that affect the marine transportation system and the Americans that rely on it, but there’s no question that the task is more challenging than it has been at any point since the pandemic began.”

Vaccine Priority

Wilkins proposed that mariners, as recognized essential workers, be given priority for COVID-19 vaccines equivalent to that assigned to health care workers. He urged the CDC to provide clear direction to states, which control the distribution of vaccines, on giving maritime workers priority.

“To be clear, we’re not asking to cut the line,” Wilkins said. “We’re asking to work with you and the administration to ensure the timely and efficient immunization of a relatively small segment of the country’s frontline essential workforce that has an outsize impact on our economy and security.”