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Federal mask mandate for planes, buses and trains to extend into next year

Rules first imposed at the beginning of the year were never eased, even when the CDC loosened guidance on masks in the early summer

A traveler enters the Los Angeles International Airport on Aug. 13, 2020. (Bing Guan/Bloomberg News)
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The Transportation Security Administration said Tuesday that it will extend a federal mask mandate for airline, bus and train passengers into next year, requiring the face coverings until Jan. 18, 2022.

The mandate — issued in the first days after President Biden took office — was never relaxed, even during the early-summer months when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began telling fully vaccinated people that masks were generally no longer necessary.

While a CDC order imposing the transportation requirement has no end date, TSA enforcement rules had been set to expire Sept. 13.

“The purpose of TSA’s mask directive is to minimize the spread of covid-19 on public transportation,” said a statement from the agency. The extension was first reported by Reuters.

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With the delta variant causing a new surge in coronavirus cases, the CDC has walked back its loosened guidance on masks as mandates have returned in some cities and school districts. Transportation is one of the few areas in which the federal government has taken responsibility for imposing such rules.

Violators of the mandate face fines. The rules apply at airports and train stations, as well as on planes, trains and buses. Children under 2 and people with certain disabilities are exempt.

The extension of the transportation mask mandate comes as flight attendants continue to grapple with unruly passengers, some of whom have become confrontational when reminded that they must wear a mask.

Unruly airplane passengers are straining the system for keeping peace in the sky

The Federal Aviation Administration has been trying to crack down on bad behavior among passengers, warning of fines and potential prison time, but has struggled with the surge in cases. Nonetheless, it has proposed hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said the extension of the mandate would “help tremendously to keep passengers and aviation workers safe.”

“Masks are the most effective tool to stop the spread of COVID-19,” she said in a statement. “While vaccination has been key to the increased air travel demand, the lagging vaccination rates and rise of the Delta variant has caused cases to skyrocket again — threatening lives, continued virus mutation, and recovery from this pandemic.”

The mandate has faced opposition from some Republican lawmakers, with Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) introducing a bill last week that would prohibit the CDC from requiring masks on public transportation.

Airline travel began to rebound from historic lows last year as vaccination rates climbed and case counts fell. But in recent weeks, airlines have begun to warn that the spread of the delta variant again threatens their business.

Southwest Airlines told investors last week that demand for flights appeared to be weakening and that cancellations were on the rise. And international travel has yet to return in most cases, with the United States continuing to ban travel by visitors from much of the world.