On his first day in office, President Biden signed an executive order issuing his long expected federal mask mandate, which applies to areas where the president has the authority to issue such policies — federal buildings, federal lands, airports, and airplanes.

28% of American land is federal, including lands operated by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other agencies. Much of it is recreational, and a lot of people are confused about whether or not they’re now legally required to wear masks when walking on a trail far from other people or sitting at their own campsite.

It’s not surprising that there’s little clarity, since much of the media reporting just says “masks are now required in National Parks.” But let’s take a look at the actual text of the order.

It states, in part, that “…individuals in Federal buildings and on Federal lands should all wear masks, maintain physical distance, and adhere to other public health measures, as provided in CDC guidelines.” It goes on to say that “…The heads of [agencies] shall immediately take action, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, to require compliance with CDC guidelines with respect to wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, and other public health measures by…all persons in Federal buildings or on Federal lands.”

As you can see, the order is simply requiring that people in federal buildings and on federal land follow CDC mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines. The current CDC guidelines for mask wearing are:

  • People age 2 and older should wear masks in public settings and when around people who don’t live in their household.
  • A mask is NOT a substitute for social distancing. Masks should still be worn in addition to staying at least 6 feet apart, especially when indoors around people who don’t live in your household.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol after touching or removing your mask.

And finally, the one that applies to our question:

  • Masks may not be necessary when you are outside by yourself away from others, or with other people who live in your household.

So it would appear that the presidential mask order isn’t that much different from most state mask orders, just applying the same principals to public lands. If you’re near people or in a building, wear a mask. Where one at scenic overlooks, or have it in your pocket if no one else is around just in case someone shows up. Even trails that aren’t too busy often require that you pass a lot of people.

Now, this Executive Order does provide for agency heads to make some more specific rules, so be on the look out at National Parks and other federal recreation areas for more in the coming days.