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The federal government has extended mask requirements for travelers for an additional month. Art Marie/Getty Images
  • Mask mandates have been extended by the federal government for an additional month until April 18.
  • This will require travelers to continue wearing face masks while on airplanes, trains, and other types of public transportation as well as while in transit hubs.
  • Airline and some government officials think this may be the last nationwide extension of the public transit mask requirements.

The federal government has extended the requirement for travelers to wear face masks while on airplanes, trains, other public transportation, and in transit hubs through April 18.

This requirement, which went into place at the beginning of 2021, was set to expire on March 18. The extension comes at the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Over the next month, the CDC “will work with government agencies to help inform a revised policy framework for when, and under what circumstances, masks should be required in the public transportation corridor,” the agency and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said in statements on March 10.

These revised guidelines will be based on community coronavirus infection levels, the risk of new variants, national COVID-19 data, and the latest science, the agencies said.

Airline and some government officials think this may be the last nationwide extension of the public transit mask requirements, reports Reuters.

Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy, said because the world is still in the middle of a pandemic, there are benefits to wearing masks in indoor public settings, especially on public transportation.

“On public transit, people are sitting in an enclosed space for extended periods, they may not be able to maintain social distancing, and they’re breathing recirculated air,” he said.

“On top of that, there’s no real guarantee of what percentage of people are vaccinated within an airplane or train [traveling within the country],” Lee said.

Coronavirus cases in the United States have been dropping since the Omicron peak in early January, but the virus has not gone away. In addition, the country is averaging more than 1,200 deaths a day.

In response to the receding surge, the CDC relaxed its guidance last month for when people should wear masks in indoor public settings in the community.

As of March 10, more than 98 percent of the U.S. population is in a location ranked as low or medium risk under the CDC’s new COVID-19 community level framework.

Some public health experts have criticized this revised framework, saying that by focusing more on COVID-19 hospitalizations and less on community case levels, public health agencies will be slower to respond to the next surge.

These revised community guidelines did not affect the public transit mask rule.

When asked at a March 2 White House media briefing why people in many parts of the country could now go maskless in a movie theater or sports arena but would need to wear a mask on a plane or train, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky responded:

“We have to look not only at the science with regard to transmission in masks, but also the epidemiology and the frequency that we may encounter a variant of concern or a variant of interest in our travel corridors,” she said.

Lee said it doesn’t make sense to have separate mask guidelines for community settings and public transportation, especially since community settings can vary widely.

“There are many indoor locations that are as significant an exposure risk as sitting on a plane or a train,” he said. “It’s a little unclear why there is this separation in guidelines.”

Airlines, travel groups, and business associations last month called on the administration to “repeal the Federal mask mandate for public transportation or provide a clear roadmap to remove the mask mandate within 90 days.”

They also called for an end to the pre-departure COVID-19 testing requirement for all fully vaccinated people flying into the United States.

Administration officials said they are considering lifting this requirement for international visitors, reports Reuters.

Lee said there are benefits to continued mask use while COVID-19 cases are still occurring and vaccination rates are so low.

Only 65 percent of the total U.S. population is fully vaccinated, and only around half of people eligible for a booster have received one, according to CDC data.

Research suggests three doses of a COVID-19 vaccine provide more protection against infection by the Omicron variant compared with two doses.

Other research suggests people who have had two doses are still protected against severe illness and hospitalization.

Lee and his colleagues recently published a study in The Lancet Public Health that found continued use of face masks for 2 to 10 weeks beyond reaching a vaccination target — 70 to 90 percent fully vaccinated — could prevent a substantial number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from the coronavirus.

On top of that, they estimate this would save the country billions of dollars by reducing direct medical costs and productivity losses due to COVID-19.

The study also provided evidence that these benefits to society and the economy can occur even without indefinite mask policies.

“Face mask wearing won’t last forever,” said Lee.

“We just have to remember that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic and this virus is actively spreading, and we’re still having far more deaths than from other types of respiratory viruses,” he said.