Court ruling creates mishmash of transportation mask rules
A decision by a federal judge in Florida to throw out a national mask mandate for public transportation across the U.S. created a confusing patchwork of rules for passengers as they navigate airports and transit systems.
The ruling gives airports, mass transit systems, airlines and ride-hailing services the option to keep mask rules or ditch them entirely, resulting in rules that vary by city and mode of transportation.
Passengers on a United Airlines flight from Houston to New York, for instance, could ditch masks at their departing airport and on the plane, but would have to put them back on once they get off their flight in New York.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recently extended the mandate until May 3 to allow more time to study the BA.2 omicron subvariant of the coronavirus now responsible for the vast majority of U.S. cases. But the court decision put the mandate on hold.
Here's a look at how U.S. transportation centers and providers are responding:
Major airlines were some of the first to update their rules after the court decision. United, Southwest, American, Alaska, Delta and JetBlue announced that effective immediately, masks would no longer be required on domestic flights.
“While this means that our employees are no longer required to wear a mask – and no longer have to enforce a mask requirement for most of the flying public – they will be able to wear masks if they choose to do so, as the CDC continues to strongly recommend wearing a mask on public transit,” United Airlines said.
The Association of Flight Attendants, the nation’s largest union of cabin crews, has recently taken a neutral position on masks because its members are divided about the issue. On Monday, the union’s president appealed for calm on planes and in airports.
Alaska Airlines said some passengers who were banned for violating the mask policy will remain banned.
Airports weren't as fast to do away with masks, with several expressing uncertainty about the ruling and taking a wait-and-see approach.
But others, including the two main airports in Houston, did away with mask requirements soon after the Transportation Security Administration said it would no longer enforce the mandate. Los Angeles International, Phoenix Sky Harbor and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International also eliminated their mask requirements. San Francisco International Airport said it was waiting for further guidance from TSA.
New York City airports have so far left masks in place, with the exception of Newark Liberty International Airport, which is located across the Hudson River in New Jersey where masks are now optional.
Massachusetts officials also announced the end of mask requirements at Boston Logan International Airport.
TRAINS AND BUSES
In New York, Metropolitan Transportation Authority communications director Tim Minton said the system was keeping masks mandatory on the subway, buses and commuter rail lines, as they have been since early in the pandemic.
But the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the New York area’s major airports as well as buses and trains, appeared to have been caught off guard by Monday’s ruling.
A spokesperson at first said an order to wear masks “remains in effect as we continue to consult with the state public health authorities.” The agency later issued a news release saying masks are required at New York facilities, but are optional at New Jersey facilities. Masks remain required on Port Authority buses and trains operating between the two states.
Mask requirements for Boston’s subways, buses and other public transit were lifted Tuesday, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority said.
The transit agency serving Philadelphia and its suburbs has announced masks will no longer be required on its subways, buses and trains or in its stations and concourses.
The regional train system serving the Washington, D.C., area said Monday masks will be optional for its customers and employees going forward.
Southern California’s five-county Metrolink passenger rail system is also no longer requiring people to wear face coverings. However, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Los Angeles city Department of Transportation continue to have website advisories stating face masks are required.
In two of Alaska's largest cities, masks will no longer be required on any form of public transportation, Anchorage and Juneau city officials announced Tuesday.
Portland's public transit agency, TriMet, has also opted to make masks optional on its buses and train.
Amtrak also said it was making masks optional.
The ride-sharing companies Lyft and Uber announced on their websites Tuesday that masks will now be optional while riding or driving.
"We know that everyone has different comfort levels, and anyone who wants to continue wearing a mask is encouraged to do so. As always, drivers or riders can decline to accept or cancel any ride they don’t wish to take,” Lyft said.
Both companies are no longer requiring people to sit in the back seat but Uber said “to give drivers space, we ask that riders only use the front seat if it’s required because of the size of their group.”