- Several experts weighed in on the end of the federal mask mandate for public transportation and how they will approach travel going forward.
- A federal judge struck down the mask mandate earlier this week.
- The Justice Department is expected to appeal the decision.
After a federal judge in Florida struck down the federal mask mandate for public transportation on April 18, face masks are no longer required on airplanes, buses, subways, and trains.
However, two days later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asked the Justice Department to appeal the court’s decision.
This will unlikely have an immediate effect because the Transportation Security Administration is not expected to enforce the CDC’s mask order while the ruling is reviewed.
This leaves people free to decide whether to wear a mask while on public transit, except in areas like Los Angeles County that still require them in indoor public spaces.
Healthline asked several experts what they think of the end of the CDC’s mask mandate and whether they will continue wearing a mask when they travel.
Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a clinical professor in the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, said his main concern with the end of the CDC mask order is the way it happened.
“[The federal court’s ruling] undermines the authority of the CDC, at absolutely the wrong time to be doing that,” he said.
“We need public health institutions to have the authority to use a variety of different interventions to protect public health,” he added, such as quarantining, isolation, vaccination, testing or treatment — and even requiring masks.
Before the court struck down the mask order, the CDC had extended it 15 days to May 3 to give the agency more time to study the BA.2 Omicron subvariant, responsible for over 74 percent of sequenced cases.
Kenneth Campbell, DBE, MPH, program director of Tulane University’s online Master of Health Administration program and an assistant professor in the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, said he agreed with the agency’s decision to extend the mandate.
“Policymakers are really trying to do the right thing for the safety of the public,” he said, “but we have to work together to ensure the message is consistent with the science.”
Dr. Shruti Gohil, the associate medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention at UCI Health, said choosing the best time to end a mask mandate is complicated.
However, “you’ve got to end it sometime,” she said, pointing to several positive signs that now might be the right time.
We are in this “transition moment,” she said, moving from a pandemic state to an endemic state for the virus.
In addition, “we have vaccines out there, we have treatments out there, and we have seen [case] rates come down significantly [since early January],” she said.
Dr. S. Wesley Long, an associate professor of pathology and genomic medicine at Houston Methodist, agreed that in areas with low transmission levels and high vaccination rates, it can be appropriate to end mask mandates.
However, “it may make sense for cities like Philadelphia, or other cities where transmission rates are higher, to think about measures to reduce transmission,” he said.
After Philadelphia reinstated its mask mandate this week, officials announced they would again end the mandate after just a few days.
Dr. John Mourani, medical director of infectious disease at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center, emphasized that masking is one layer of protection from the coronavirus.
So when masks come off, vaccines, ventilation, and other interventions can still help keep people safe.
“Getting fully vaccinated and boosted is the best first line of protection against severe disease,” said Mourani. However, “people can still wear a mask for their own protection if they choose to do so.”
Still, “in our third year of the pandemic, it is not unreasonable to stop the mask mandate, especially when [it is] only applied to limited situations,” he added.
Gohil said mask mandates made more sense early on in the pandemic before we had effective COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.
“When there is no community-level immunity, there are no vaccines or treatments, and the healthcare system is overwhelmed, then a mandate is absolutely required,” she said. “Because people need to act a certain way for the public good.”
Now, the risk of COVID-19 patients overwhelming the healthcare system is low, she said.
However, this could change, she added, if a new coronavirus variant emerges that overcomes the protection offered by the vaccines and infection or if it causes a more severe disease.
The effectiveness of mask mandates also depends on the type of mask people use, how they wear the mask, and other factors.
If everyone in an area is correctly wearing high quality N95 or KN95 masks, that may substantially help stop the spread of respiratory disease, compared to a group wearing low quality masks like cloth masks that have gaps in them.
Klausner said mask mandates are less useful now that there are COVID-19 vaccines and antiviral treatments.
In addition, “as a public health strategy to protect the population, there’s been a lot of debate on their utility,” he said. “So [for a mask mandate] to have an impact at the population level is actually quite difficult.”
Still, he thinks masks should be required in hospitals around immunocompromised patients or people with active infections.
In addition, “people who want to wear masks, and people who are at increased risk of infection or severe disease, should be informed about the benefits of mask-wearing,” he said.
Gohil said even though most mask mandates have ended in the United States, it doesn’t mean we are done with masks forever. Especially high quality N95 masks that are the most effective at helping prevent disease.
After more than two years of the pandemic, we have learned that “when rates go up we should get those masks back on, and when rates go back down, we might be able to be more liberal,” she said.
Long said going forward, it’s better to have the mindset of: “If transmission is high, we should do things to reduce transmission, and if transmission is low we can relax those measures.”
To do that, though, he said we need to have strong public health surveillance of the coronavirus going forward.
Gohil said whether she wears a mask will depend on the level of coronavirus transmission in her area or the area she’s traveling to.
If she’s flying to a city where cases are high or increasing sharply, or if she has a stopover at an airport or train station in that area, she will wear a mask indoors.
This means having a mask handy when traveling, something she recommends that all people do.
In addition, “If I’m feeling sick, I’ll put my mask back on to protect other people,” she added.
Long said he will also consider the local conditions when deciding whether to wear a mask.
“I will probably still wear a mask on planes for the most part,” he said. Also, “if I am on a subway or a crowded indoor environment with poor ventilation, I might put one on.”
But, he said it will depend on local transmission. He may be less likely to wear a mask in areas with low case rates.
He may be more likely to wear a mask in cities with higher rates or when he’s not certain of the transmission level.
Klausner said in general, planes have very good ventilation while the engine is on, so masks are less needed during those times.
Other forms of transportation may have poor ventilation, although opening a window can help improve it.
“If I’m on a subway, bus, or train, I open the window,” said Klausner. “If I can’t, and it is particularly crowded, I might put my [KN95] mask on.”
He said these decisions are all about choosing the risk level that you are personally comfortable with — as we do with other activities.
He takes some precautions in his life, such as wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle or motorcycle. But he also participates in risky activities such as scuba diving, mountain climbing, and skiing.
“People need to be informed and take personal protections that make sense for them,” he said, keeping in mind where we currently are in the pandemic.