The Homeland Security agency created after the 2001 terrorist attacks to protect the nation’s transportation system has been quite busy investigating and fining travelers who do not wear masks to supposedly slow the spread of COVID-19. Since February 2021 when the face mask security directive was implemented to March 2022, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has investigated more than 3,800 cases involving “non-masked passengers,” according to a federal audit. The agency charged with preventing another 9/11 issued more than 2,700 warning notices and over 900 civil penalties against passengers who violated the mask mandate, the probe found. The average fine was $699.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, conducted the audit and issued a report this week with the findings. Because the TSA is responsible for securing the nation’s transportation sector, it issues security directives if threat information, events, or significant vulnerabilities indicate that additional security measures are needed. In this case, surface transportation operators within the U.S. were ordered to implement face mask requirements for passengers and employees because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined that multi-person transportation modes potentially increase the risk of spreading COVID-19 because travelers are in close proximity to others in enclosed spaces where physical distancing is not possible.
It appears that the TSA, not exactly known for its competence, was more efficient than ever in cracking down on mask violators. Congressional investigators found that the agency issued the COVID-19 directives in less than a week and “expedited coordination with external stakeholders—other federal agencies and industry—to develop and issue these directives, due to the urgent nature of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Not everyone was happy. “While selected external stakeholders raised several issues with the security directives, they stated that TSA’s expedited coordination was generally effective,” the GAO writes. Some may wonder if health-related issues fall under the security threats that Congress created the TSA to deal with. Not really, but the TSA claims that the introduction or spread of a communicable disease through the transportation sector is a threat that allows it to exercise its authority as needed, including the authority to issue security directives.
Coinciding with the report highlighting the TSA’s mask policing duties, new research conducted by a European consulting and health group shows travel restrictions failed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Even when travel restrictions are implemented immediately after the discovery of a new variant, it only delays infection peaks by a maximum of four days, researchers found. By the time restrictions are issued, the new variant has likely been circulating in communities worldwide, according to the study. “Air travel restrictions do not affect the size of the peak,” researchers write, adding that “introducing air passenger testing does not affect the height of the peak of cases, relative to not having any restrictions in place. This holds even when travel volumes are high.” The study has led the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Airports Council International Europe to call for an end to all COVID restrictions, including mask mandates.
The TSA’s “security directive” for mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs has been extended through April 18. The agency will continue to crack down on violators, issuing warning notices and civil penalty fines against passengers. First-time offenders typically get warning notices and “repeat offenders” get slapped with civil penalties of up to $1,500. Because so many passengers refused to comply with the face mask requirement, last fall the TSA expanded the list of aggravating factors that qualify a violator for a monetary civil penalty to include instances of defiant behavior while refusing to wear a face mask and repeated removal or improper use of a face mask after being instructed to wear one. The agency also increased the penalties, with first-time offenders receiving $500 to $1,000 fines and repeat offenders fines of up to $3,000. The overwhelming majority of mask incidents investigated occurred onboard aircrafts.
As the TSA does an impeccable job chasing non-masked passengers, its lapses in more serious areas come to mind. They include missing guns and bombs during covert exercises known as “red team tests,” TSA agents literally sleeping on the job and stealing from passengers, the failure to properly screen luggage and a number of other violations that have risked national security. Records obtained by Judicial Watch a few years ago show hundreds of badges that allow agents to access secure areas of airports went missing along with uniforms and other devices used to control entry. Last year a federal audit disclosed that nearly 2 million workers with unescorted access to security restricted areas at airports throughout the U.S. could pose an “insider threat” as the TSA studies how to curb the risk. The agency is supposed to submit a plan to Congress examining the cost and feasibility of enhanced worker screening measures at American airports.