Deadline looms for mask mandate on planes, trains
The White House has only days to decide if it will renew the mask mandate on public transportation systems as COVID-19 cases once again show signs of rising.
The requirement to wear a mask on airplanes, in airports and on buses and trains has been in place for 14 months under the Biden administration, including several extensions, but is finally set to expire Monday.
With the potential for a new coronavirus surge fueled by the BA.2 variant, however, the White House is facing questions over whether it should be extended again.
White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha said this week that extending the mandate is “absolutely” being considered and that the decision is ultimately up to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC, according to Jha, is developing a scientific framework to make the call, which will be made available in the “next few days.”
“It’s a decision made by the CDC, so they will make that decision,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday. “And I’m not aware of a decision being made at this point.”
Several states have seen a rise in COVID-19 cases as BA.2, a highly transmissible subvariant of omicron, has spread. But the White House has indicated that it is not overly concerned about the variant due to the low hospitalization numbers associated with recent cases.
“On the one hand, yes, we are seeing a rise in cases in certain parts of the U.S. and BA.2 is an extremely contagious subvariant. On the other hand, hospitalizations are at a record low and one could reasonably ask, what is the metric for deciding when this mandate is lifted or is it always going to be there?” said Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University.
The Transportation Security Administration’s mask mandate was last extended by only one month eight days before it was set to expire on March 18. That extension was its shortest yet; before that, it was extended in December amid a rise in cases due to the original omicron variant.
Chris Beyrer, the Desmond M. Tutu professor of public health and human rights at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says he recommends extending the mask mandate until July 1 based on the trajectory of the delta variant in the fall. People who contracted delta have experienced a certain level of protection as a result, but that natural immunity could wane by June, he said.
Also, he said, travel picks up for children around the end of the school year.
“We just have to be mindful that with the warmer weather and family travel and holiday travel and the end of school, a lot more kids are going to be traveling, and we still don’t have vaccinations approved for the under 5” age group, Beyrer said.
Biden signed an executive order on his first full day in office directing federal agencies to “immediately take action” to mandate the use of masks on trains, intercity buses, ferries and in airports. Its original expiration was set for May of last year.
Before that, multiple major U.S. airlines had required travelers to wear masks aboard flights, but it wasn’t required from government.
Beyrer said that while vaccination and boosting helps with BA.2, the vaccination rate in the U.S. is not sufficient to protect Americans.
“We are still in a more vulnerable position than we should be, and therefore I think we have to be wary about rising BA.2 cases, and now is not the time to lift that mandate,” he said. “The fact is it will be very hard to lift it and then reinstate it in a few weeks if we find ourselves in a BA.2 surge.”
Only about 30 percent of Americans have received their first booster shot, and the administration last month authorized a second booster shot for people 50 years old and up.
Beyrer pointed to the nature of traveling to argue for keeping masks, in comparison to not masking in restaurants or stores.
“One of the things we always worry about from an epidemiological perspective is the mixing of populations,” he said. “What is different about going to your local supermarket or pharmacy or restaurant in your neighborhood is that decision, whether masking is required or not, is based on local transmission data. Once you step into a big airport, you are not in a local environment anymore, you are in a national and international environment.”
The city of Philadelphia on Monday reinstated its indoor mask mandate as COVID-19 cases have climbed, but currently no states have such a mandate. Neither does Washington, D.C., and the White House has held large events over the last several weeks that haven’t require attendees to mask.
D.C. has also recently experienced a rash of cases among high-profile individuals, including Psaki, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Attorney General Merrick Garland. More than 70 people tested positive after the high-profile Gridiron Club dinner two weeks ago.
If the mask mandate for travel ends, Wen said there are other ways to keep air passengers safe while traveling, such as requiring masks during boarding and deplaning.
“A simple cloth mask is not doing very much at all. So right now, places that require just a face covering of any kind, and that includes planes, there’s a lot of ineffective masking going on,” Wen said. “One-way masking with a high-quality mask is very effective at preventing infection. People who wish to continue to keep protecting themselves, even if a mask is not required, need to wear a N-95 or equivalent mask.”
The Biden administration could face major backlash if it extends the mandate. Republicans in Congress have for months called for it to be lifted, and last month eight Senate Democrats joined with the GOP on a measure to nix the mandate.
Twenty-one states also sued the administration late last month in an effort to get the mask mandate for travel lifted, claiming the administration has displayed disdain for the limits on its power regarding COVID-19 restrictions.
Additionally, the business community is ready for it to expire.
Major industry groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Airlines for America, the U.S. Travel Association and the American Hotel and Lodging Association, wrote a letter to Jha on Friday arguing that the mask requirements for air travel can be put to rest.
“The science clearly supports lifting the mask mandate, particularly in the context of recent CDC guidance, which found that the overwhelming majority of the U.S. population no longer needs to wear masks indoors,” the groups wrote.
They added that enforcing these requirements has fallen on airline employees for the past two years and has sometimes led to “challenging situations with frustrated passengers.”
After the last extension, in March, CEOs of major U.S. airlines wrote a letter to Biden to drop the federal transportation mask mandate along with the international pre-departure testing requirement, arguing the restrictions are “no longer aligned with the realities of the current epidemiological environment.”