Federal Mask Rule Dropped for Travel on U.S. Planes, Buses and Trains
A judge struck down the COVID-19-related requirement, but DOJ is appealing
The Department of Justice (DOJ) said on Wednesday that it will appeal the ruling that overturned the longtime COVID-19 mandate that face masks be worn on public forms of transportation and in transportation hubs.
Federal Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Florida had ruled on Monday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mask-wearing mandate was an overreach of the agency’s authority and dismissed the mandate as “unlawful.”
The DOJ’s move came at the request of the CDC, which said in a statement: “It is CDC’s continuing assessment that at this time an order requiring masking in the indoor transportation corridor remains necessary for the public health.” It added, “CDC will continue to monitor public health conditions to determine whether such an order remains necessary. CDC believes this is a lawful order, well within CDC’s legal authority to protect public health.”
In response to Monday’s decision, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is no longer enforcing the longtime mask rule, which applied to passengers and workers on planes, trains and buses, as well as in U.S. airports. It may do so again, however, if the DOJ moves to block the judge’s order.
Last month the CDC announced that most people were safe to go maskless in many other indoor settings, but recommended that “everyone ages 2 years and older should properly wear a well-fitting mask indoors in public in areas where the COVID-19 Community Level is high, regardless of vaccination status.” The agency maintains a color-coded, county-by-county map to track COVID-19 data, including hospital capacity and the number of new COVID-19 cases in an area. (Most of the country is now at a green, or low, level, despite a slight uptick in new infections.)
What this means for travelers
Though some travelers cheered when the mask news was announced by some pilots mid-flight on Monday, travelers are likely to face a patchwork of requirements, depending on where and how they are traveling.
It’s still up to individual airlines, bus lines, transit agencies and other transportation entities to decide whether to keep their mask mandates in place — but many, including Amtrak, Lyft and Uber, dropped them soon after the ruling. Both Uber and Lyft also announced that passengers can again ride in the front seat, which was banned during the pandemic.
The Washington, D.C., Metro system has dropped its mask requirement, but New York City is still mandating face coverings on its subways, buses and trains. Philadelphia International Airport is also requiring masks inside its terminals.
All major airlines announced within hours that passengers and employees no longer need to wear face masks. Delta added that they “may continue wearing masks if they so choose.” The airline’s chief health officer, Henry Ting, M.D., said, “Wearing a well-fitting mask — such as a KN95 — protects the wearer, even if others around them are not wearing masks.” Other medical experts have agreed.
Delta also acknowledges the confusion this new ruling may cause, as people “may be receiving this information at different times.” The company therefore asks passengers to “remember to show understanding and patience with others who may not be aware enforcement is no longer required.”
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Disputes over mask wearing have been one reason for passengers’ unruly and sometimes violent behavior going through security and in the air. From the middle of January 2021 through Dec. 21, 2021, there were 5,779 reports of unruly passenger behavior, at times involving physical assault, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Many airlines stopped serving alcohol on board for many months during the pandemic, concerned that inebriation was fueling bad behavior.
Many U.S. airports also have said masks are now optional (check your airport’s website before traveling). But note that rules may be different for international travel. Alaska Airlines says that passengers must continue to wear masks on flights both to and from Canada, and in airports within Canada and Mexico, for instance.
British Airways advises, “If you are traveling on our flights, you will be required to wear a mask on board if the destination you are flying to or from requires you to.”
The travel industry, eager to get back to business as usual, has long been pushing for the mask rule to be lifted. The U.S. Travel Association said approvingly in a statement on Monday that the court order was “a further step toward endemic management of COVID.” Several public health experts, however, took to social media to express their displeasure with the decision, citing concern for people who are at higher risk for serious illness if they contract COVID while traveling.
How to protect yourself
If you are at higher risk for complications from COVID-19, the best way to protect yourself from infection when others are unmasked is to wear a well-fitted respirator mask like an N95 or KN95.
As the name suggests, these masks are at least 95 percent effective at filtering out virus-sized particles, including the virus that causes COVID-19, when worn correctly. A study published by the CDC in February found that people who wore an N95 or KN95 mask in indoor public settings were 83 percent less likely to test positive for COVID-19 than those who wore no mask.
“If you’re in a crowded place where there are people who maybe have COVID, wearing an N95 mask means you’re cleaning the air much better right before you breathe it in,” M. Patricia Fabian, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health, told AARP in a previous interview.
A surgical mask is another option that provides more protection than a cloth mask, although it’s considered less effective than respirators.
Just make sure your mask fits well: It should be snug over your nose and mouth and should form a tight seal, without any gaps along the edges or around the nose. Don’t have an N95? Your local pharmacy or health clinic may offer them for free — you can check the CDC’s website to find a list of participating pharmacies near you.
Traveling by air? Airlines have touted the safety of flying, equipping their planes with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which remove at least 99.97 percent of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria and airborne particles as small as 0.3 microns, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new developments.
Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.