Last week, in response to the rise in the BA.2 subvariant of the Omicron Covid-19 variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) extended the mask mandate for flying commercially and other public transit, like buses, subways, and ferries, through at least May 3. The agency released a statement, “In order to assess the potential impact the rise of cases has on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and health care system capacity, the CDC Order will remain in place at this time.” The agency further said that mask-wearing is most important in crowded and poorly ventilated spaces, such as forms of mass transit, and while airplanes have good ventilation, the crowds could pose a risk.
Supporters of the extension state that the virus continues to present a threat, especially for individuals who are immunocompromised, have disabilities or are elderly. Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts wrote, “The emergence of a new and even more transmissible variant only confirms that COVID remains a serious, ongoing danger. For that reason, I urge CDC to consider extending its mask order and continue requiring masks on public and commercial transportation.”
According to a poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released Wednesday, 56% of Americans support requiring masks on planes and other public transportation. Of those polled, 24% opposed masks, and 20% were neither in favor nor opposed to one.
Numerous studies have shown that wearing masks considerably lowers the risk of Covid-19 infection. In February, researchers in California published a report in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that showed consistent use of an N95 or KN95 mask in indoor public settings reduced the odds of testing positive for the virus by 83%, while the use of a surgical mask reduced the odds by 66% and a cloth mask was 56%.
However, many local mask mandates have been rolled back throughout the country, and the Biden administration has been dealing with growing pressure to lift the mask requirements for public transportation. Industry leaders from the airlines and many politicians, particularly those who are Republican, have called for the mandate to be rescinded or, at a minimum, not extended, citing that the policy goes against current recommendations regarding mask-wearing.
These groups point to the guidance the CDC issued back in February, in which they provided a new framework regarding when masks are necessary. According to the changes, mask-wearing should be based on the level of the disease within a community. Given the decline in infections, large portions of the country would be eligible to stop wearing masks. Another part of the argument is that many states no longer require masks in public settings, such as bars, sports arenas, schools, and large gatherings, so why would they be required on airplanes or other mass transit situations.
In March, 21, primarily Republican-led states, sued the federal government to end the mask mandate immediately. Two days ago, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle struck down the mask mandate, concluding it exceeded the authority granted to the CDC under decades-old federal public-health law and violated rule-making procedures. The ruling doesn’t change the state of the mask mandate, but it can’t be enforced unless the government wins its appeal or a stay of the court’s order. Yesterday, the Justice Department said it would appeal only if the CDC found such an order necessary. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) lifted the mask requirement in response to the ruling.