Masks will continue to be required until at least May 3 when flying commercially and in other transportation settings, including on buses, ferries and subways, while health officials monitor an uptick in coronavirus cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday.
Case counts have begun to rise in the Northeast as the BA.2 subvariant of omicron takes hold. While local mask mandates have largely been rolled back, the subvariant is prompting new debate on when masks should be required.
The Biden administration has faced growing pressure to lift the mask requirement for air travel and public transit. Before the decision was announced, Nicholas E. Calio, the chief executive of trade group Airlines for America, wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on Wednesday saying extending the mandate “does not make sense.”
Last week, Republican leaders on the House and Senate transportation committees reiterated their call for the president to “rescind or decline to extend the mask mandate.”
“We believe the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA’s) extension of the transportation mask mandate last month ran counter to your public health agency’s announcement that most Americans could forego wearing a mask indoors,” they wrote in the letter to President Biden. “It is our belief that these inconsistent decisions further erode public trust in the Federal government, especially when transportation operators have taken significant steps to keep passengers safe.”
In late March, 21 mostly Republican-led states sued the government seeking to immediately end the mask requirement.
However, in a letter to the CDC and TSA sent last month, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said he thought the mandate should be kept.
“Although cases of COVID-19 in the United States have declined from this winter’s peak, the virus continues to pose a threat to the public, particularly for seniors, the immunocompromised, and individuals with disabilities. The emergence of a new and even more transmissible variant only confirms that COVID remains a serious, ongoing danger,” Markey wrote.
“For that reason, I urge CDC to consider extending its mask order and continue requiring masks on public and commercial transportation. In any modifications to these requirements, both CDC and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) must center efforts to protect the elderly, the immunocompromised, and individuals with disabilities.”
Some groups that had previously supported the masking requirement have urged the administration to consider dropping it.
Last month, executives from 10 airlines, including American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, sent a letter to Biden urging him to end pandemic-related travel policies, including the mask mandate.
In making their case, many groups cited updated guidance issued by the CDC in February that laid out a new framework for determining when masking should be necessary. The new calculations, which were based on the level of disease in the community, meant large swaths of the country no longer needed to wear masks. Groups also argued that keeping the requirement in place for transportation seemed contradictory since states had largely stopped requiring people to wear masks in public settings.
“It is very difficult to understand why masks are still required on airplanes, but not needed in crowded bars and restaurants; in packed sports arenas; in schools full of children; or at large indoor political gatherings,” Calio wrote in his letter Wednesday.
The picture may be changing in some communities with the arrival of the BA.2 subvariant. This week, Philadelphia became the first major U.S. city to reinstate the requirement in indoor public spaces.
The announcement also comes as airlines are seeing a surge in spring travel — one the industry anticipates will extend through the summer and beyond. TSA officials have reported an increase in the number of people screened at airport checkpoints, with many days routinely topping the 2 million mark as they had before the pandemic.
The mask mandate for transportation originally was took effect in February 2021, shortly after Biden took office, when federal officials had only just begun the vaccine rollout. Since then, it has been extended several times. In making the announcement that the ban would be extended through April 18, federal health officials said the additional time would be used to develop a revised framework that would guide the policy going forward.
Even so, the public had mixed views on whether masks should continued to be required in transportation setting. A poll of 1,000 adults conducted by NBC News in mid-March found that 51 percent of those surveyed supported continuing the mandate, while 46 percent said the requirement should be ended. Three percent of those who responded said they were not sure.
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 studies show mask-wearing can reduce the spread of the coronavirus, the mandate has caused conflict on airplanes and in airports. In their letter to Biden, airline executives cited that as a reason for ending the mandate.
In a statement Wednesday, John Samuelsen, the international president of the Transport Workers Union, said he respected the CDC’s decision to extend the mandate, but he added that “we cannot ignore that the mask mandate has driven an unprecedented rise in assaults by unruly passengers against airline workers, who are essential to ensuring the public can travel safely.”
The union is backing proposed legislation that would create a no-fly list for unruly passengers.
The Federal Aviation Administration last year 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.
The TSA — charged with enforcing the 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.