The fishing and maritime industries have been hit hard by COVID-19 as outbreaks have swiftly traveled through vessels and processers. No one knows for certain how an individual will respond to the virus; many show no signs of illness but may be highly contagious. Others become so ill they require hospitalization, and many develop long-term medical conditions as a result of the illness. Every aspect of the seafood supply chain has been distressed by the pandemic, especially for those who work in fishing and processing.
To reduce the transmission of COVID-19, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has issued an emergency order requiring all persons “traveling on conveyances into and within the United States” to wear a face mask. But how does this affect the fishing and maritime industries?
U.S. Coast Guard has been granted the authority to implement public health measures consistent with the CDC guidelines at seaports (e.g., passenger terminals, cargo handling facilities, and other shoreside facilities that provide transportation of persons or cargo). The CDC mask requirement has been interpreted by the U.S. Coast Guard to apply to “all forms of commercial maritime vessels,” including cargo ships, fishing vessels, research vessels, and self-propelled barges. The Marine Safety Information Bulletin states that all persons working or traveling on commercial vessels are required to “wear a face mask or cloth face covering when outside of individual cabins.”
The bulletin also states that “owners, operators, and crew of vessels that fail to implement the mask-wearing order may be subject to civil or criminal penalties from the CDC. Furthermore, based on the scientific determination of the CDC, the Coast Guard finds that failure to wear a mask creates an undue safety risk by increasing the risk of transmission of COVID-19 between passengers, the crew of the vessel, and port operators. COVID-19 is known to cause severe illness and death which impacts the safe operations of ships and port facilities.”
Other guidelines include required mask-wearing outside of one’s quarters. The bulletin does not address whether a mask should be required after onboard quarantine. Many vessel crews have quarantined together onboard to reduce risk. The mandate does require mask wearing for those who have been vaccinated.
The only broad exemptions are:
- When “eating, drinking or taking medication for brief periods” (but not for use of tobacco).
- When the crew member is a solitary worker in the work area (for example, when standing watch).
- While communicating with a person who is hearing impaired when the ability to see the mouth is essential for communication.
- If unconscious (for reasons other than sleeping), incapacitated, unable to be awakened, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance, experiencing difficulty breathing or shortness of breath or feeling winded may temporarily remove the mask.
- When necessary to temporarily remove the mask to verify one’s identity.
- For a child under the age of 2 years.
- For a person with a disability who cannot wear a mask, or cannot safely wear a mask, because of the disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- For a person for whom wearing a mask would create a risk to workplace health, safety, or job duty as determined by the relevant workplace safety guidelines or federal regulations.
These guidelines and rules will continue to evolve as more people are vaccinated and we get closer to herd immunity. Until then, we all need to mask up. Questions and comments may be submitted to the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Commercial Vessel Compliance, at firstname.lastname@example.org.