After a federal judge in Florida ruled that U.S. health agencies do not have the authority to uphold a national transportation mask mandate, the move resulted in a domino effect of mask requirements being lifted across the country, including on planes, trains, and in automobiles (Uber and Lyft have dropped their mask requirements, too). But some public transit spaces are still requiring masks. Here’s what we know thus far.
The ruling in question came in the form of a 59-page court order issued on April 18 by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, stating that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) failed to properly justify its mask order and did not follow proper federal procedures in implementing it.
Her decision came less than one week after the CDC, which instituted the order, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which was enforcing it, announced that they would be extending the transportation mask requirement another two weeks until May 3, 2022, due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases and the spread of the BA.2 subvariant. The mandate was previously set to expire on April 18.
The White House called the decision “disappointing,” and White House spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters that “the CDC continues recommending wearing a mask in public transit.” But in light of the ruling, the TSA issued a statement that it will no longer be enforcing mask use on public transportation and in transportation hubs.
The transportation mask mandate dates back to January 2021, when the Biden administration and the CDC issued orders making it obligatory to wear masks in airplanes, airports, ships, ferries, trains, subways, buses, taxis, and train, bus, and subway stations. (School buses and vans are exempt as of February 25.) U.S. airlines had already been requiring that passengers and crew wear masks since mid-2020.
Travelers have effectively been wearing masks on planes for nearly two years now. But masks on U.S. flights are no longer required. Here is what is required regarding masks on planes, trains, and other forms of transportation, including rideshare services, such as Uber and Lyft.
No more masks on planes—how the airline masking policies have changed
All of the major U.S. airlines have dropped their mask requirements for crew and passengers following the April 18 ruling. Here’s what they had to say.
Alaska immediately moved to make masks optional on its flights following the April 18 ruling. The carrier is reminding its passengers that masks continue to be required on flights to and from Canada.
“Please remember to be kind to one another and that wearing a mask while traveling is still an option,” Alaska stated.
American stated Monday that “in accordance with the Transportation Security Administration no longer enforcing the federal face mask mandate, face masks will no longer be required for our customers and team members at U.S. airports and on domestic flights.”
American reminded travelers that face masks might still be required based on local ordinances—for example, Philadelphia has a newly reinstated indoor mask mandate—or when traveling to or from international destinations that require masking on planes.
Delta Air Lines
Delta informed customers that while the mask mandate would no longer be enforced in airports and on airplanes, “Delta employees and customers may continue wearing masks if they so choose.”
The airline asked that fliers proceed with patience and understanding in the coming hours and days. “Given the unexpected nature of this announcement, please be aware that customers, airline employees and federal agency employees—such as TSA—may be receiving this information at different times. You may experience inconsistent enforcement during the next 24 hours as this news is more broadly communicated. Remember to show understanding and patience with others who may not be aware enforcement is no longer required,” Delta stated.
Effective April 18, masks are optional on JetBlue. That’s the message from the carrier, short and sweet.
Southwest informs travelers that while federal law no longer requires that masks be worn in the airport or on the airplane, “you’re always welcome to wear a mask while traveling if you prefer to—if you need one at the airport or onboard, we’ll have them ready.”
The carrier also reminds its passengers that if some cities or states require masks at the airports, travelers will need to abide by the local jurisdiction’s rules.
United Airlines stated Monday evening that “effective immediately, masks are no longer required at United on domestic flights, select international flights (dependent upon the arrival country’s mask requirements) or at U.S. airports.”
“While this means that our employees are no longer required to wear a mask—and no longer have to enforce a mask requirement for most of the flying public—they will be able to wear masks if they choose to do so, as the CDC continues to strongly recommend wearing a mask on public transit,” United said in a statement sent to AFAR.
What about masking in airports? What’s required and at which hubs?
Numerous U.S. airports have dropped their masking requirement following the April 18 news, including (but not limited to):
- Charlotte Douglas International Airport
- Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport
- Denver International Airport
- Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
- Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport
- Las Vegas’s Harry Reid International Airport
- Los Angeles International Airport
- Newark Liberty International Airport
- Orlando International Airport
- Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport
- San Francisco International Airport
- Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
Not all airports are allowing the masks to come off, however. Travelers should check the hubs they are flying out of and into for the latest requirements. Airports where masks are still mandatory as of press time include:
- Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports
- LaGuardia Airport in New York
- New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport
- Philadelphia International Airport
Masks on trains and buses
The country’s national rail network Amtrak has informed passengers that they are no longer required to wear masks while onboard trains or in Amtrak train stations. However, the rail operator stated that “masks are welcome and remain an important preventive measure against COVID-19. Anyone needing or choosing to wear one is encouraged to do so.”
In New York, Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) communications director Tim Minton said the system was keeping masks mandatory on the subway, buses, and commuter rail lines, as they have been since early in the pandemic.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the New York area’s major airports as well as buses and trains, issued a statement saying masks are required at New York facilities, but are optional at New Jersey facilities. Masks remain a requirement on Port Authority buses and trains operating between the two states.
The transit agency serving Philadelphia and its suburbs has announced masks will no longer be required on its subways, buses, and trains or in its stations and concourses—even though Philadelphia recently reinstituted an indoor mask mandate and masks are required in the terminals at Philadelphia International Airport.
The regional train system serving the Washington, D.C., area said Monday that masks will be optional for its customers and employees going forward.
Southern California’s five-county Metrolink passenger rail system is also no longer requiring people to wear face coverings. However, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation continue to have website advisories stating face masks are required.
In Northern California, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system that serves San Francisco and the surrounding regions has stated as of April 19, “BART hasn’t made an official or final determination if a mask mandate will continue on BART.”
The masks can come off in ridesharing services Lyft and Uber
“We know that everyone has different comfort levels, and anyone who wants to continue wearing a mask is encouraged to do so. As always, drivers or riders can decline to accept or cancel any ride they don’t wish to take,” Lyft stated.
Both companies are no longer requiring people to sit in the back seat but Uber said, “To give drivers space, we ask that riders only use the front seat if it’s required because of the size of their group.”
Could a federal mask mandate be reinstated at some point?
On April 19, the Department of Justice announced that it plans to appeal Judge Mizelle’s decision if the CDC concludes that a mask mandate should remain in place beyond May 3, when the federal mask requirement was set to expire.
“The Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) disagree with the district court’s decision. . . . The Department continues to believe that the order requiring masking in the transportation corridor is a valid exercise of the authority Congress has given CDC to protect the public health,” the DOJ said in a statement.
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters on April 19 that “public health decisions shouldn’t be made by the courts. They should be made by public health experts.”
As for whether U.S. travelers should continue masking on planes, in its latest update, the CDC stated that it “continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings at this time.”
Psaki noted that the Biden administration is “abiding by the CDC recommendations . . . and we would advise all Americans to do that.”
Despite the recommendation, a large number of travelers were ready for masks to come off—54 percent said they wanted the federal mask mandate to expire, according to a survey released by travel app TripIt from Concur earlier this month. TripIt surveyed more than 700 of its U.S.-based users in early April and found that just one-third hoped the mask mandate would be further extended, while 16 percent didn’t have a preference either way.
How to best protect yourself when traveling
Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, notes that several groups of people should continue wearing masks while traveling even though it’s no longer required:
- Those who are unvaccinated
- Those who are immunocompromised
- Those who are over 50, have significant underlying health conditions or diseases, and/or are pregnant and have yet to receive a COVID vaccine booster shot
- Those who live with anyone who falls into the above categories
For those who want to continue to wear a mask, Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says wearing a very good mask even when others are not wearing a mask can still provide decent protection. “It is important to recognize that individuals can continue to wear masks as their risk tolerance dictates . . . and that one-way masking, especially with the high-quality masks available today, works,” Dr. Adalja tells AFAR.
So, what’s considered a “high-quality” mask? N95s have become the gold standard for protection.
“Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection, layered finely woven products offer more protection, well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even more protection, and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection,” the CDC states in its latest mask guidance. (NIOSH stands for National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.)
While KN95 and N95 masks (or respirators as they are sometimes called) can offer a similar level of protection, N95s are considered a notch above because of the NIOSH approval that ensures they are well manufactured. The CDC reported that about 60 percent of KN95 respirators evaluated by NIOSH during the pandemic were of subpar quality, so it is important to research and buy quality KN95s, typically made overseas, from reputable vendors.
This story originally appeared on March 2, 2022, and has been updated to include current reporting. Associated Press contributed reporting.
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