WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. airport security officers will be required to wear masks in screening areas, the top official with the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) told employees during a town hall Wednesday.
The decision, which has not previously been reported, is expected to be made public by TSA as early as Thursday. The agency is also likely to encourage passengers to wear face coverings during screening, but not mandate them.
During a video town hall, Administrator David Pekoske said that security officers in screening areas would be required to wear either surgical masks or a much more protective type of mask known as an N95 respirator.
“Our requirement is going to be that anybody in the screening checkpoint has to wear a mask all the time while they’re in that checkpoint,” he told employees, according to a recording of the meeting viewed by Reuters.
A TSA spokeswoman declined to comment.
In some airports, local officials are already mandating employees and passengers wear masks or face coverings.
Federal air marshals and baggage employees will also be required to wear masks, Pekoske said. He did not directly address whether passengers would be required to wear masks.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Wednesday that starting Monday all travelers at Los Angeles International Airport “will be required to wear face coverings to help us save lives and slow the spread of COVID-19.”
Major U.S. airlines are mandating that passengers wear facial coverings onboard and in some cases at gates and during check-in.
He said the agency would receive millions of masks in the coming weeks, but that most would be surgical masks and not the more expensive N95 respirators.
“Once [area directors] have the supply to be able to support this, then rather than making maskwear optional, for example, it’s now mandatory. And we’ll carry that through as long as we need to, to protect all of you, and to protect the public,” Pekoske said.
The agency is trying to take other steps to improve social distancing at checkpoints, such as limiting pat downs at checkpoints, and eventually using better screening machines that could limit false alarms.
“We’re not going to get to completely touchless,” Pekoske said. “We can reduce the number of times we get in close proximity to a passenger to a significant degree and then mitigate a good portion of the rest of the risk with personal protective equipment.”
TSA is now allowing passengers to go through screening machines twice if needed in an effort to avoid a pat down, he added.
Pekoske said no decision had been made regarding temperature checks of passengers at airports and that questions remained about where such checks might take place and which agency might perform them.
“It’s been a discussion that’s been ongoing for several weeks now,” he said.
Johnny Jones, secretary-treasurer of the AFGE TSA Council 100, which represents TSA officers, said the union did not have a position on the mask requirement, since it had not been formally announced.
“My personal opinion of it would be, people should wear the mask to protect themselves,” he said. “Why would you not want to wear something?”
(Reporting by David Shepardson and Ted Hesson. Editing by Gerry Doyle)