The federal mask mandate on public transportation, including flights, is set to end on April 18, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)—but health experts have mixed feelings on the changing guidelines, with some worrying that national case counts should go down a bit more first.
"Given that all these are indoor spaces that can be very crowded, it makes sense that the case load should be lower before the transportation mask mandate is lifted," Thomas Russo, MD, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, told Health.com.
Though COVID-19 cases continue to decrease throughout the U.S. the pandemic is ongoing. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 18% of counties in the U.S. are still in areas of high community transmission; only 15% of counties are considered low-risk.
Here's what's set to happen when the federal mask mandate expires, and when you may still want to mask up, despite lifting mandates.
TSA Mask Mandate, Explained
The TSA's federal mask mandate was first implemented in February 2021, requiring people to wear masks during travel on public transportation and in transportation hubs in the U.S. That guidance was initially set to expire in May 2021, but throughout the Delta and Omicron variant surges, the recommendations have continually been pushed back.
In March of this year, the guidance was pushed back again—now, the expiration date is set for April 18.
Under the federal mask mandate, people who do not wear masks in the appointed areas run the risk of being denied entry or transportation, and are also subject to fines that could amount to $1,500 for repeat offenders, the TSA said.
It's unclear what masking will look like on planes or other modes of transportation when the mandate is finally lifted. According to a recent statement from the TSA, the CDC is working on revised guidelines "for when, and under what circumstances, masks should be required in the public transportation corridor." Those guidelines will be based on "COVID-19 community levels, risk of new variants, national data, and the latest science."
It's also worth noting that the lifting TSA mandates only apply to U.S. public transportation; both the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) still recommend masking on flights, meaning you may still be asked to wear a mask on an international flight. And some domestic airlines may recommend or mandate masks in-flight even if the TSA no longer mandates them.
Why the Mask Mandate Is Ending
The CDC relaxed its country-wide masking guidance in February to encourage people to rely on local COVID-19 case counts and their personal risk of developing severe illness when deciding whether to mask up in public indoor spaces. The agency also released a risk calculation tool that allows users to check current COVID-19 case counts, separating counties across the U.S. into low, medium, and high categories.
For the most part, people are free to go unmasked in areas with low risk, but they're encouraged to wear masks indoors when case counts are high. High-risk individuals may want to continue to mask indoors, even in medium-risk settings, the CDC said.
In accordance with CDC guidance, many states and school systems also dropped their own indoor mask mandates—but the important thing to note here is that all of these recommendations are being made at a state level. Ending the federal mask mandate on planes and other transportation systems—by which people can travel state-to-state—is a national decision.
"We need to remember that the risk of COVID-19 is local," Katrine Wallace, PhD, adjunct professor and epidemiologist at the University of Illinois, told Health.com. So with larger modes of transportation that go further, there is "a more uncertain and heterogenous risk picture," Wallace said.
Is It Too Soon to End the Mask Mandate?
There doesn't seem to be a consensus among public health and other medical experts on whether the federal mask mandate should end, or if it's still too early.
The risk of people across the country being in close, maskless contact with each other—coming from different counties with different transmission levels—is what some health care professionals are most worried about.
"It would be nice to see no hot spots on the map before beginning mask-optional travel," Wallace said. "If the country as a whole has low transmission, risk of infection on planes…will be less uncertain."
It's also important to consider those who aren't yet able to be vaccinated—specifically children under 5—and people who are immunocompromised, for whom vaccines may have reduced protection. This is especially true as CDC data shows the BA.2 variant (previously known as "stealth" Omicron) is on the rise in the U.S.
Still, some experts believe it may be time for the mask mandate to end, simply because of previously lifted mask mandates across the country. "I think it's hard to argue for a federal mask mandate on transportation when the same federal government has lifted mask recommendations for [some] of the country," infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Health.com.
Drs. Adalja and Russo said the filtration systems on planes are also a reason as to why it may be OK to lift those mask mandates. According to an October 2020 article published in JAMA, the risk of contracting COVID-19 during air travel is relatively low, primarily because airplanes are regularly circulating a mixture of fresh air and air recycled through HEPA filters, which are commonly used in hospitals.
Should You Continue to Wear a Mask on a Plane?
When the mask mandate is lifted, the policy change will apply to everyone—but that doesn't mean you have to immediately discard your face coverings. According to Wallace, some groups—like people who are immunocompromised or live with immunocompromised people, or people with unvaccinated children at home—should still consider wearing a mask while flying or riding on public transportation.
You may also want to continue masking on planes if you've recently been in counties with high case counts, or if you work in high-risk settings around more vulnerable populations.
Your personal risk tolerance also matters: "A lot of people have a low risk tolerance, and if they wish to continue to mask on planes they may do so," Wallace said. "It's a great way to prevent COVID-19 and all other respiratory viruses."
When in doubt, there's no harm in wearing a mask, Dr. Russo added. "The safest thing, if you're concerned, is to mask up," he said. "Masks are imperfect, but—if you have a high-quality, high filtration mask—it will afford a pretty reasonable degree of protection, even if no one else is wearing one."
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.
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