Mask rules are changing yet again, this time on public transit. A federal judge in Florida struck down the nationwide mask mandate for planes, as well as buses, trains and metro systems, on Monday. The Department of Justice moved to appeal the ruling Wednesday, but while litigation is ongoing, masks are still not required on public transit.
Originally, the mandate was set to expire Monday. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended it another two weeks to give public health experts time to assess the potential for another surge fueled by the BA.2 subvariant. Now, airlines including Alaska Air, United, Jet Blue and others say that masks are optional on their U.S. flights. (The CDC still recommends wearing masks on public transportation, even if it's no longer legally required.)
In general, whether you need to wear a mask — and the type of mask you should wear — depends on the impact COVID-19 is having in your community at the time, according to the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As cases declined after the massive omicron surge, people in many areas of the country can stop wearing masks indoors, the CDC recommendations say.
But wearing masks on public transit, which can be an especially high-risk scenario, should be approached differently: Experts say we should be cautious and considerate to those around us in making our personal decisions about masking on planes and other public transportation.
Many airlines no longer have a face mask mandate. What about other public transit?
The CDC’s mask mandate was originally set to expire on April 18, 2022, but they extended it to May 3 to allow more time to learn about the spike in cases due to BA.2. But a federal court order struck down the mandate, and the Transportation Security Administration said in a statement that it will no longer enforce the rule.
Many airlines, including Delta, United and American Airlines, have already announced that masks are now optional on their flights, NBC News reported.
In other travel settings, masks may still be required depending on the individual rules set by the company or organization in charge. On the subway, for instance, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said it would still require riders to wear masks. That covers the Long Island Rail Road as well as Metro-North trains. But NJ Transit dropped its mandate.
Regarding rideshare apps, Uber already announced it would be dropping the mask requirement effective immediately, as did Lyft.
Is it safe to travel without a mask?
While the mandate is no longer in effect, the CDC still recommends that people wear masks while traveling. “As a result of a court order, effective immediately and as of April 18, 2022, CDC’s January 29, 2021 Order requiring masks on public transportation conveyances and at transportation hubs is no longer in effect,” the CDC’s site now reads. “Therefore, CDC will not enforce the Order. CDC continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings at this time.”
Specifically, the CDC guidelines recommend that people wear a mask when using public transportation, like subways or buses, and when in indoor travel settings, such as train stations and airports. In outdoor settings, like a bus stop, you don’t need to wear a mask.
"I had hoped that the transit requirement for masks would be one of the last things that went away," Dr. Richard Besser, former acting CDC director, told TODAY co-anchor Savannah Guthrie Monday.
For one thing, many people don't have a choice when it comes to travel or commuting, so they can't necessarily opt out of doing so if the risks are too great for them, he said. "There are people who have disabilities, who have medical conditions that put them at greater risk, who are in situations where they are shoulder to shoulder with fellow passengers on a bus or on a train in a subway," Besser said.
It is true that wearing a mask provides some protection even if you're the only person wearing one, but we know that masks are most effective when everyone wears one. Besser said: "I would hope that people would respect those around them, and if there are people around you who are wearing masks, that you put yours on."
Beyond the immediate public health concerns, Besser said the overturning of a public health mandate like this could spell trouble for the future.
"My biggest concern is if the CDC loses its power to prevent the spread of infectious diseases between states or coming into the country, we are all at great risk," he said. "In the next pandemic, the next big public health crisis, we want the CDC to be able to put in scientifically based rational restrictions that protect people's health."
How to know when it's time to wear a mask in your area
After the CDC adjusted its recommendations a few weeks ago, masks aren't required for most areas of the country — even in indoor settings.
Now, when community COVID-19 levels are low, the CDC says people can decide to use a mask based on "personal preference, informed by your individual level of risk."
If your community has a medium COVID-19 level, people who are immunocompromised or have a high risk for severe illness due to the virus, the CDC says you should talk to your health care provider about taking extra precautions. That might include wearing a mask or respirator. At this level, those who live with or interact with people who are at a higher risk for severe COVID-19 should consider getting tested before having close contact with those vulnerable individuals.
At high community COVID-19 levels, the public should wear a well-fitting mask in indoor situations, including schools. That goes for pretty much everyone, regardless of vaccination status. People who are immunocompromised or otherwise at high risk for severe COVID-19 should wear a mask that provides a higher level of protection, such as an N95 respirator.
For all levels, the CDC also recommends getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and getting tested if you develop symptoms of the infection.
Note that these community COVID-19 levels are different than the COVID-19 community transmission levels that the CDC used previously to recommend masking. And the new guidelines may not necessarily apply to all situations; more vulnerable settings like long-term care facilities and hospitals may still enforce mask use, the CDC says.
Wearing masks in schools
In many states, officials and school districts are lifting school mask mandates.
Looking at the new CDC guidance, schools don't need to implement masking — even indoors — when the local community COVID-19 level is low. When the community COVID-19 level increases to medium, the CDC guidelines recommend that schools consider adding precautions, such as screening testing. It's only at the high level of community COVID-19 that the CDC recommends masking in schools.
Whether or not children should continue to wear face masks even when the mandates expire will ultimately come down to the individual family's decision based on what's happening in their community as well as their own personal risk factors.
With children under 5 unable to get vaccinated, low rates of vaccination among kids who are eligible for the shots and new research suggesting the vaccine is less effective among 5- to 11-year-olds, many children in school may have less protection than adults.
“So, for now, it makes sense to have masks in school," Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health and professor in the department of infectious diseases at the Yale School of Medicine, told TODAY previously.
What type of mask should you wear?
The CDC recommends wearing the "most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently."
That's because, while N95 and KN95-type respirators are generally considered to provide the highest level of protection against viral particles, they can also be the most uncomfortable to wear. But taking the mask on and off frequently — or wearing it without the proper snug fit — undercuts the protection it can provide.
"So you have to find the right balance,” Dr. Raed Dweik, pulmonologist, critical care specialist and chair of the Respiratory Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, told TODAY previously. If it's easier for you to keep a cloth mask or a surgical mask on for the entirety of your bus ride, that's likely to be a better option than an N95 that you can only wear comfortably for a few minutes at a time.
Keep in mind that, if you can't get your hands on a respirator, you can double-mask (by wearing a surgical mask underneath a cloth mask) or use something like a mask brace to make the face coverings you have access to more protective.
Will we need to keep wearing masks forever?
As the new CDC guidelines make clear, masks will come and go as the dynamics of the pandemic continue to ebb and flow.
When case numbers rise and health care systems begin to feel the burden, you should expect mask requirements to come back — especially in high-risk settings, like crowded indoor public areas. But when cases go down and hospitals are able to function more normally, the guidelines allow for us to relax some of the rules around masks.
Keeping masks as one option in our toolbox — along with vaccines and boosters — will help reduce the spread of the virus as we gradually enter what experts are calling the endemic phase of COVID-19. For some people, masks may become the norm during the annual cold and flu season, experts said previously.