For most of 2020, airlines and other travel suppliers urgently told customers to wear masks. But if passengers were unwilling to comply, there wasn't much that could be done.
The major air carriers did have the prerogative to ban noncompliant individuals from future travel—some 3,000 names have been added to the airlines' no-fly lists that way—but that's as far as those companies could go.
No matter how loudly industry leaders begged the Trump administration's Department of Transportation to help, there was no legal road to enforcement or to financial penalties as airlines worked to secure passenger safety.
That's all behind us now. One of the first things the Biden administration did after taking office was to declare face masks mandatory on commercial flights, train trips, and bus rides.
An executive order signed by the president on January 23 tasked the Transportation Security Administration with enforcement of the new safety rule, which scientists say will help protect groups of travelers from catching the virus from strangers.
This week, the TSA announced just how serious its enforcement will be.
Passengers who refuse to wear masks can be fined $250 for the first infraction and up to $1,500 for repeat offenses.
Flight attendants, bus drivers, and other employees now have full authority to report incidents to the TSA.
The agency added in its announcement, "Based on substantial aggravating or mitigating factors, TSA may seek a sanction amount that falls outside these ranges."
In other words, troublesome passengers who are rude or recalcitrant may see the maximum fine soar even higher.
“As we continue to experience impacts from this pandemic, we are committed to this measure as the right thing to do for the TSA workforce, for our industry stakeholders, and for passengers,” TSA rep Darby LaJoye said in the statement.
Passengers who refuse to heed the new federal rule may also "be denied entry, boarding, or continued transport," according to the update. That means mask refuseniks can now legally be thrown out mid-trip, if doing so is possible.
In addition to fines levied by the TSA, airlines still have the right to ban individuals from using their services again.
Of course, there's an easy way to avoid trouble: Just be considerate of the health of the people around you until this pandemic is over.