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Mask mandate extended for air travel and public transit

The decision comes amid a broader rollback in restrictions elsewhere in the country as coronavirus cases have fallen

A traveler checks flight information at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Travelers will have to continue to wear masks until at least April 18 when flying commercially and in other transportation settings, including on buses, ferries and subways, officials announced Thursday.

The mandate, put into place early last year by the Biden administration as a public health measure during the coronavirus pandemic, has been extended multiple times. It had been set to expire March 18 before the one-month extension, announced by the Transportation Security Administration.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it would work with the TSA and other agencies to determine what changes to the policy are warranted. The mask requirement for transportation settings is one of the highest-profile federal pandemic-related mandates still in place.

“This revised framework will be based on the COVID-19 community levels, risk of new variants, national data, and the latest science,” the CDC said in a statement. The agency did not offer additional information on why it opted to extend the mandate.

The extension of the mandate comes as airlines are expecting a surge in spring travel. The emergence of the omicron variant just after Thanksgiving dampened demand for flights, but carriers said they expected bookings to rebound. In recent weeks, information from the TSA shows an increase in the number of people screened at airport checkpoints.

The mandate has drawn criticism from some Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.), who has lobbied to end the mask requirement.

Shortly before Thursday’s announcement, Wicker, the top Republican on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and 30 other senators sent a letter to President Biden urging him to lift pandemic-related travel restrictions.

“I am disappointed President Biden has chosen to extend these mandates yet again,” Wicker said in a statement after the announcement. “The science does not support this decision.”

A group of 90 Republican House members, led by Reps. Guy Reschenthaler (Pa.) and Doug LaMalfa (Calif.), sent a similar letter to Administrator David Pekoske of the TSA earlier this week, saying the mask mandate should not be extended.

Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and other Republicans have introduced legislation aimed at rescinding the requirement.

Some in the transportation industry also had argued it was time for the rule to be set aside. The American Public Transportation Association wrote to the White House last week to say ending the mandate would help keep the country on a path “back to normality.”

Industry and labor groups largely praised Biden for imposing the mandate shortly after he took office, but Thursday’s announcement that it would be extended drew a tepid response, with some groups saying it was time to rethink the requirement.

Airlines for America, the trade group that represents major U.S. airlines, said its members would continue to comply with the mask mandate, but also urged the administration to “identify a path forward from covid-era policies,” such as mask-wearing and pre-departure testing for international travelers.

The extension of the mask mandate comes after states have rolled back rules that people wear masks indoors and as the CDC has revised its rules on mask-wearing. The revised guidance details new metrics and color-coded zones designed to help individuals assess the risk in their community so they are able to determine whether extra precautions are needed.

CDC issues sweeping mask mandate for planes, public transportation in U.S.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a Thursday briefing that the extension of the transportation mask rules reflects the differences in coronavirus rates among communities.

“If we’re in Washington, D.C., and we’re in a green zone or a yellow zone, you can make a clear assessment,” she said. “If you’re moving from one zone to another zone and you’re picking people up from one zone to another, it’s a little bit different and that requires some consultation.”

Panagis Galiatsatos, a pulmonary doctor at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, said while the CDC might want to make a distinction between crowded transportation settings and other public places, the national guidance about masks has become increasingly complicated.

“You’re really putting a lot of emphasis on patients and people to differentiate what’s a good setting,” he said. “It’s tough for people to make a consistent conclusion.”

Galiatsatos said vaccination and masks are precautions that should remain in place until the end of the pandemic, with additional steps such as weekly testing used during surges.

Airlines began requiring customers to wear masks in mid-2020 as part of the effort to contain the spread of the virus. The Trump administration declined to put a mask mandate in place, but shortly after taking office, Biden issued an order that required mask-wearing in all transportation settings.

While numerous studies show mask-wearing can reduce the spread of the virus, the mandate has caused conflict on airplanes and in airports. Most incidents reported to the Federal Aviation Administration have been mask-related, the agency said.

Citing concerns about omircon, Biden administration moves to extend mask mandate for transportation

In 2021, the FAA received nearly 6,000 reports of unruly passenger behavior and more than 70 percent of cases were mask-related. The agency has proposed more than $1 million in fines related to disruptions that have included assaults on crew members, other passengers and violations of airline alcohol policies.

Hoping to deter bad behavior, the TSA — charged with enforcing the federal mask mandate in airports, on trains and in other transportation settings — last year doubled fines for violations to as much as $1,000 for first offenders and up to $3,000 for second offenders. The agency said in February that it has imposed nearly $400,000 in civil penalties against more than 600 mask violators.

The Transport Workers Union said it could accept health guidance rooted in science, but in a statement Thursday, it linked the mask rule to an increase in violence.

“Unruly passengers were an issue that our members dealt with before the pandemic, but we have seen this behavior dramatically increase over the past two years since mask mandates were enacted,” said Alex Garcia, the union’s international executive vice president.

Children younger than 2 and people with certain disabilities are exempt from the mask requirement.