A judge’s Monday decision voiding federal mask mandates for airlines and other forms of public transportation prompted a wave of airline companies and public transit providers to drop their mask rules.
Now, airports, train stations and bus terminals are increasingly mirroring the patchwork of maskless scenes unfolding at many workplaces — even as some public health experts worry about the end of mask requirements.
Asked Tuesday if people should continue to wear masks on planes, President Joe Biden said “that’s up to them.”
The Department of Justice said in a statement Tuesday if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “concludes that a mandatory order remains necessary for the public’s health after that assessment, the Department of Justice will appeal the district court’s decision.”
It’s been a dizzying flurry of announcements after the ruling from District Court Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle and the Transportation Security Administration’s statement that it would not be enforcing the requirement in light of the decision.
Major carriers including Delta Air Lines
and American Airlines
now say masks will be optional, instead of required for domestic flights and certain international travel. Some passengers heard the news mid-air and peeled off their masks.
Train travelers and employees on Amtrak are no longer required to wear masks, but added, “Masks are welcome and remain an important preventive measure against COVID-19.” Meanwhile, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority said riders on subways, buses and taxes are still required to wear masks.
Greyhound announced Tuesday that masks are now optional, except for trips into Mexico and Canada, where masking rules still apply. Mask will also be mandatory if required locally, Greyhound noted.
Many employers have already ditched masks
In a sense, these very visible transportation providers are catching up with many other workplaces as patience with the pandemic continues to fade, a new survey suggests.
Around two-thirds of employers (63%) have already ended mask requirements and another 21% say they are ending their current mask rules by the end of this year, according to a recent survey from WTW
a human resources consulting firm.
On the other hand, 14% of companies say they are keeping their mask rules in place at least until some point next year if not later, according to a survey of more than 600 companies conducted from March 7 to March 23.
Not surprisingly, healthcare sector companies, which care for sick and immunocomprised patients everyday, were most likely to say their mask rules were sticking around at least to some point in 2023, if not later.
Four in 10 said that was the plan, while 27% said the internal mask rules are ending this year. Healthcare sector companies were also most likely to say they were keeping their vaccine requirements in place for the foreseeable future.
Seven in 10 healthcare companies said they would be keeping their vaccine requirements at least until 2023, if not later. That’s compared to the 33% of all companies that said they’d be keeping with the jab requirements through that same timeframe.
When it came to masking, IT and telecom companies were the second most likely to say they had no plans to change their masking rules anytime soon, with 19% saying some point in 2023 would be the absolute earliest.
Just 6% of financial services companies said they’d be sticking with the mask rules and 21% said the current rules would be ending this year.
“Many employers, based on local risk, either removed or intend to remove mask mandates anyway,” said Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, a WTW managing director. “I don’t think this will have a dramatic impact on that,” he said, referring to Monday’s ruling.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mask mandate for public transit was supposed to run until May 3. Federal agencies are reviewing the decision and the Justice Department would make any next steps for litigation, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.
‘It’s your call’ could backfire, public health officials say
As the mask rules roll down, some public health experts are worried about the way it’s all happening. Hours before the ruling, Dr. Kavita Patel, an Obama administration health policy director, said in a CNBC interview that the “it’s-your-call kind of theme that’s out there” could backfire with a COVID-19 flare-up.
To be clear, there are places where masking rules still apply. That includes subway and commuter train straphangers on New York City-area’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The city of Philadelphia currently has an indoor mask mandate in place for now, in all public places. That includes the city’s school system and the Wells Fargo Center stadium, as the 76ers play the Toronto Raptors in NBA playoffs.
“We recognize that this is a move that some may wish wasn’t necessary, but is a measure that helps us maintain safe and healthy schools and offices,” said Philadelphia school system spokeswoman.
Office work, culture and employee expectations keep getting challenged and redefined as the pandemic continues. It’s going to be no different on this new phase for masks, or the lack them, Levin-Scherz said.
“Employers will need to continue to sort out how to make sure their office remains mask-friendly even if they don’t require masks,” he said.