A Judge Ended the Federal Travel Mask Mandate—Here’s What Doctors Think

A Judge Ended the Federal Travel Mask Mandate—Here’s What Doctors Think

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On Monday, a judge struck down the federal travel mask mandate that has been in effect for more than a year. Under the mandate, which was recently extended until May 3, people were required to wear face masks on public transportation and in transportation hubs.

Florida judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle voided the mandate in a decision that said, among other things, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had exceeded its legal authority under the Public Health Services Act of 1944 by imposing the mandate. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) later said in a statement that it would “no longer enforce” the mandate, “effective immediately.”

The statement concluded with this note: “CDC continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings at this time.”

The ruling didn’t ban masking on public transportation—instead, it left things up to individual companies and agencies to decide on their own policy.

If you regularly take public transportation or are planning to go on vacation soon, it’s understandable to have questions about what, exactly, this means for masking in the future. Here’s what you need to know, plus what infectious disease experts think about this.

What did the federal travel mask mandate say, again?

The TSA’s federal mask mandate first went into place in February 2021. It required that people wear masks when they take public transportation, including airplanes, trains, and buses, and in public transportation hubs.

Under the mandate, people could be denied entry to public transportation and face fines of up to $1,500 for not complying.

The mandate was originally scheduled to end in May 2021, but the rise of COVID-19 variants like Delta and Omicron pushed it back. The mandate was pushed to March 2022 and again to April 18, before it was recently extended to May 3.

Are masks no longer required on planes?

Again, the ruling punted the decision on masking to individual airlines. However, many major airlines—including Delta, American Airlines, United, and JetBlue—quickly announced the end of their mask mandates.

Delta stirred up controversy after saying that COVID-19 had “transitioned to an ordinary seasonal virus” in a statement about the end of its mask mandate. (That was later tweaked on Thursday to call it a “more manageable respiratory virus.”)

It’s important to note that the end of the mask mandate for these airlines is on domestic flights; Individual countries have their own regulations and requirements.

Are masks still required for public transportation?

Not necessarily. The end of the federal mask mandate means that the government is no longer requiring that people wear masks on federal transportation. However, individual agencies can make their own decisions.

Amtrak announced the end of its mask mandate but said that masks are still “welcome and remain an important preventive measure against COVID-19.”

Uber also announced the end of its mask mandate.

However, the MTA, which operates New York City’s subways and buses, said that it would continue to require masks.

What do infectious disease doctors think?

The federal mask mandate was supposed to remain in effect for two more weeks, but infectious disease experts are largely in agreement that it’s fine to end the mandate now.

“It’s been about time to lift this mandate because people have been going indoors to all kinds of crowded events—religious services, concerts, restaurants, you name it—without masks,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “There’s been a lot of question in the public health community about why we have to wear masks on aircraft.” Dr. Schaffner points out that the BA.2 COVID-19 variant, which is currently the dominant variant of the virus in the U.S. “is all over the country—it’s not as though we’re inhibiting the spread of this particular variant,” he adds.

Infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says that he “doesn’t have any concerns with the timing.”

“I found it odd that most activities don’t require masks except for travel,” he says. “With airplanes, the risk is very low because of the air cycling and filtration mechanisms.”

Thomas Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, says the move marks a big change. “We’re entering this stage of the pandemic of personal responsibility,” he says. “Those individuals that are at a bigger risk of getting infected may still decide to mask up.”

Should you still wear a mask on public transportation?

It depends on a few factors, including your personal health risks and who you interact with regularly. If you’re over 65, have an underlying illness that puts you at risk for severe COVID, or care for someone who meets those criteria, Dr. Schaffner recommends wearing a mask on public transportation.

“People should consider wearing masks if they’re uncomfortable with the risk of COVID-19, especially if they have high-risk conditions,” Dr. Adalja says. “Just because the government tells you that you don’t have to wear a mask on an airplane or in other transportation venue does not mean that you are forbidden from doing so. One-way masking works.”

Dr. Russo also recommends being aware of how getting COVID-19 could impact your life, even if you’re fully vaccinated and at low risk for severe illness. “If you’re going on vacation and will land in quarantine if you test positive, that’s important to consider,” he says. “If it’s going to be problematic for you, you should continue to wear a mask.”

Overall, Dr. Schaffner urges people to support the decisions of others after the end of the mandate. “Everyone else should not only tolerate but support people who wear a mask in a public venue, such as in an airport or on a plane, and no give them a hard time,” Dr. Schaffner says. “They have their reasons.”

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