Well-Being Prevention & Cures

Public health experts divided over masking on public transit

“Don’t do this now with the most transmissible COVID-19 variant ever,” said Peter Hotez, dean at Baylor College of Medicine.
A masked Transportation Security Administration agent checks the identification of a passenger at Rhode Island T.F. Green International Airport in Providence, R.I., Tuesday, April 19, 2022. David Goldman/ AP

Story at a glance

  • Multiple leading public health experts believe masks on public transit aren’t necessary, as COVID-19 cases remain at low levels. 

  • Others believe masks are still necessary as the BA.2 subvariant of omicron is the current dominant strain circulating across the country and remains highly transmissible. 

  • The discussion comes after a federal judge blocked the federal government’s mask mandate for all public transportation. 

Health experts are divided over whether it makes sense from a public health standpoint to end mask requirements on public transportation, a safety measure that’s been in place to combat the spread of COVID-19 for over a year.   

Some of the nation’s leading public health experts argue that masks aren’t necessary given the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic, a debate that’s been brought to light after a federal judge overturned President Biden’s mask mandate for public transit this week. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has classified almost the entire country in low community spread status, while also documenting a steady increase in the daily trend of new COVID-19 cases nationally— driven by the highly transmissible omicron subvariant, BA.2. 

That’s reason enough to keep masks around on public transit for some health officials like Peter Hotez, dean at Baylor College of Medicine, who tweeted that the reversal of the federal mask mandate was, “nothing more than a political stunt.” 

Because the BA.2 subvariant of omicron is causing cases to again rise in the U.S., Hotez argued removing masks now isn’t advisable: “don’t do this now with the most transmissible COVID-19 variant ever,” he wrote. 

Former U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams also noted the risk posed to immunocompromised people when masks are no longer required on public transit, saying on Twitter, “this means a 4-year-old kid with cancer whose parents have no vehicle might be forced to sit next to a floridly sick/coughing Covid patient with no mask on a bus, while going to get chemo.” 


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On the other hand, some public health officials question how effective masks have really been on public transit and have noted that airlines have implemented HEPA air filters that remove 99 percent of airborne particles, including the COVID-19 virus, along with other variants—with air filtered every 2 to 3 minutes. 

Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), told CNBC he felt the CDC should have let the federal mask mandate for public transit expire on its original end date of April 18. He argued masks were, “probably providing a lot less protection than people assumed because most wore cloth masks.”  

The CDC recommends Americans wear masks that provide a good fit, stating loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection while well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer more protection. 

Gottlieb also emphasized that people who want to continue wearing masks can do so, saying one-way masking still provides strong protection. 

Others have interpreted the current state of the coronavirus pandemic differently. 

“Right now, I think it’s a bit up in the air as to whether the mask mandate really is needed to control the BA. 2 variant,” said Leana Wen, professor at George Washington University and Baltimore’s former health commissioner, speaking to CNN

Ultimately, health experts have agreed that the decision to continue masking while on public transit is up to an individual. Taking into consideration the types of spaces a person will be in and what COVID-19 transmission is like within a community remain important factors that should inform when someone chooses to wear a mask or not. 

Rafael Meza, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, told Changing America that the mask mandate on public transit was eventually going to be lifted and that the decision isn’t all that surprising. However, he said he will continue to mask while using public transit. 

“It’s all a function of where you’re going to be and how many people are going to be there, if it’s a closed or open space and of course the local conditions,” said Meza. 

Even the president echoed a similar sentiment, telling reporters this week, “that’s up to them,” when asked if Americans should still wear masks on public transit. 

The CDC’s official guidance remains that people should wear masks in indoor public transportation settings.  

The Department of Justice (DOJ) appealed a judge’s ruling striking down the federal mask requirement for public transit, after the CDC determined the mandate is necessary to protect the public health.

The mandate will remain suspended as the legal fight plays out.


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