Mask requirements return for federal employees, contractors in light of new guidance

This story was updated on Wednesday, July 28, 2021 at 4:15 p.m. with more details on the Defense Department’s updated mask requirements for civilian employees and military members. 

And just like that, they’re back.

Federal agencies wasted no time in changing their mask guidance for employees and contractors in light of Tuesday’s announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommended fully vaccinated individuals wear face coverings indoors in certain locations.

“In areas of substantial or high community transmission, agencies must require all federal employees, onsite contractors and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a mask inside of federal buildings,” Jason Miller, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, said Tuesday evening in an email to agencies. “As of today, that includes the Washington, D.C. area.”

OMB encouraged agencies to quickly post new signs and information online detailing specific mask requirements for each federal facility.

This is a change from the guidance agencies issued in mid-May, when masks became optional for fully-vaccinated employees, contractors and visitors on government property.

But with the delta variant spreading rapidly across much of the country, agencies are evolving their guidelines.

At the Department of Homeland Security, masks are now required for all employees, onsite contractors and visitors inside agency workspaces and federal buildings — regardless of vaccination status or level of COVID transmission within the local area.

Tex Alles, deputy undersecretary for management, detailed the new directive to DHS employees in an email Tuesday night, which Federal News Network obtained.

“As part of its updated guidance, CDC reiterated that fully vaccinated people are at substantially reduced risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 compared with unvaccinated people,” Alles wrote. “Fully vaccinated individuals should get tested if experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. If you haven’t already, please go and get vaccinated.”

At least 77% of the frontline DHS workforce is vaccinated, Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Tuesday.

The Department of Veterans Affairs on Wednesday imposed similar requirements, but unlike DHS, the new mask mandate does not apply to all facilities — at least not yet.

“Starting today, in areas of substantial or high community transmission, VA will require all federal employees, onsite contractors and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a mask inside of federal buildings,” Randy Noller, a department spokesman, said in an email to Federal News Network.

That includes VA’s central office in Washington, D.C., where masks are required for all employees, contractors and visitors, the department said.

VA on Monday was the first federal agency to mandate vaccines for its health care workforce. President Joe Biden on Tuesday suggested a broader vaccine mandate for the federal workforce was “under consideration.”

Multiple news outlets have since reported the president will announce a new policy for federal employees as soon as Thursday, requiring they show proof of vaccination or otherwise submit to regular COVID-19 testing.

In the meantime, agencies are, again, imposing new mask requirements.

Similar to the VA and other federal agencies, the Defense Department on Wednesday announced it too will require masks indoors for service members, civilian employees, contractors and visitors entering DoD-owned or controlled facilities and installations in areas of substantial or high community transmission, regardless of their vaccination status.

“Personnel coming on to a DoD installation, other facility or workspace who do not have a mask may be provided one by DoD,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said Wednesday in a memo to senior leaders. “All DoD personnel should continue to comply with CDC guidance regarding areas where masks should be worn, including within airports.”

Additional guidance for the Pentagon reservation may come soon, Hicks said.

The administration said this latest mask guidance is consistent with the executive order Biden signed on his first day in office, which initiated a mask mandate for federal employees but instructed agencies to follow evolving CDC practices.

The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force, led by the Office of Personnel Management, General Services Administration and White House COVID-19 response team, will issue additional mask guidance in the coming days, OMB said.

The task force will also update model safety principles, which should help inform changes to agencies’ COVID-19 safety plans.

“Please share this information with your employees and onsite contractors, and please strongly encourage all employees and contractors to get vaccinated,” OMB said.

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