With news that a federal court order struck down the mask mandate on public transit, passengers may feel a bit wary about traveling and confused about what precautions they should take. The Department of Justice appealed the ruling Wednesday, but for now, it's still OK not to wear a mask in Ubers, planes and more while litigation is ongoing. As COVID-19 cases steadily rise in some areas of the country thanks to new variants, experts say it's premature to lift the mandate.
Is now the right time for airlines and other public transportation to lift mask mandates?
Originally put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over a year ago, the mandate required masks for anyone flying on planes, as well as those using public transportation like buses, trains and subways. Experts previously told TODAY that when cases are inching upward — like they are now in some states due to BA.2 — is not the time to be scaling back mandates.
"We're not necessarily at the stage yet where I think we can completely take them off, especially on airplanes for a variety of reasons. And I think that's a big concern right now," NBC's senior medical correspondent Dr. John Torres told the 3rd Hour of TODAY.
He added that the decision to remove the mandate may have been more of a response to the "hassle" of enforcing the policies than any science suggesting that it's OK to remove the mandates.
“Frankly, wearing a mask is just not that big a deal,” Dr. Emily Volk, president of the College of American Pathologists, told TODAY. “It’s a small, relatively painless action that we can do to protect the vulnerable, including the vulnerable who have chosen not to be vaccinated.”
But considering that mask mandates in pretty much all other scenarios have already been lifted, a mandate on public transit may not have been doing much to protect the public, Dr. Bernard Camins, medical director for infection prevention at the Mount Sinai Health System, told TODAY.
The challenge is that situations like eating indoors in a restaurant or working out at a gym are optional, and people who don't want to take the risk can generally opt out of them. But people don't have as much of a choice about taking public transportation if it's how they get to work, so it generally makes more sense to keep mandates in areas that can’t be avoided, Camins said.
Omai Garner, associate clinical professor and director of clinical microbiology at UCLA Health, told TODAY, "I tend to be way more on the conservative side for those (policy) decisions, meaning I want to make decisions that are going to protect the most at risk."
People with underlying health conditions or who are otherwise high risk often need to pay attention to every risk they take. For them, lifting mandates on public transportation changes their risk assessment and may make their commute more dangerous.
Mask mandates on public transit "definitely helped to protect immunocompromised people," Garner said. "So lifting them puts those people at risk."
Do you still need to wear a mask while traveling on airlines and other public transportation?
The mask mandate is no longer in effect, and the Transportation Security Administration said it won't enforce the policy. Depending on the policies of the airline or individual entity in charge of the transportation you're taking, you may or may not technically need to wear a mask.
But the CDC and the experts TODAY spoke to still recommend that people wear masks when on public transit.
"If you're within 6 feet of people and you're breathing in a lot of different people's air ... I think that wearing a mask in a space like that makes a lot of sense," Garner said.
"I’m going to still wear a mask on public transportation," Volk said, adding that she'll continue to recommend her friends and family members do the same. Torres said he'll be "one of the last people to take the mask off." And he plans to keep wearing a mask when he's sick in the future to protect those around him.
Masks can help protect us and those around us from other respiratory illnesses, like the flu, in addition to COVID-19.
If you have to travel, how can you do so safely?
There are a few things you can do if you must travel and want to make your trip a bit safer. For starters, wear your mask during a flight, Camins said, especially while you're at the gate because the HEPA filters typically are not on at that point. "Keep it on at least until you're up in the air when you've taken off and the HEPA filter has already turned on," he said.
Also, wear a high-quality mask. Ideally, that would be an N95, KN95 or KF94 respirator. But if you can't get a respirator, Camins said double-masking with a cloth mask over a surgical mask is a great way to up the effectiveness of your mask.
Also, consider getting a COVID-19 test, ideally a PCR test, "after you’ve been in a tight-quarters situation and a lot of folks aren’t wearing masks, and you feel like you’re you’ve been exposed potentially," such as after plane travel, Volk said. "(This) wouldn't (be) necessary if we just had the mask mandate in place."
If you're in a car, like an Uber or Lyft, and your driver isn't wearing a mask, Camins suggested politely asking them to put one on. He also recommended wearing your own high-quality mask and, if you can, rolling down the window for some airflow.
On a bus or subway where airflow isn't likely to be as great, where social distancing may be impossible and you can't generally open the windows, it's much harder to take extra precautions, Volk said.
Of course, in all of these scenarios, it helps to be up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccines, meaning a primary series and one booster dose.
If you're traveling with or to see someone who is high risk...
We know that lifting COVID precautions typically has the most impact on those who are more vulnerable to severe illness, including those with underlying health conditions, those who can't get vaccinated, including children under 5, and those who are immunocompromised.
“I don’t know anybody that didn’t take their trip because they had to wear a mask,” Torres said. “But I do know a lot of people that are saying, ‘I’m going to think twice about taking my trip because I have children, I’m immunocompromised. I don’t want to get sick.’”
And if you can skip traveling so without consequences, Camins said people with those types of risk factors may want to do so.
“We’ve reached this phase of the pandemic where we have to adjust life to the reality of the virus. And the reality of the virus is that it is still exceptionally dangerous to our loved ones who are severely immunocompromised. And it’s still circulating,” Garner said. “So, taking those two things into account, we have to figure out how we’re going to move around.”