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Medical experts advise public to keep masking on public transit after federal judge lifts national mandate

Massport workers took down mandatory masking signs at Logan Airport on Tuesday.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Some medical experts are advising travelers to continue donning face coverings on planes, trains, buses and rideshares after a federal judge in Florida on Monday voided the national mask mandate for airplanes and public transit.

“I would advise everyone using mass transit to keep masking whenever feasible- to protect themselves as well as other travelers who might be vulnerable (young children, our elders, and people with weakened immune systems),” said Andrew Lover, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, via email Tuesday.

“In general, airplanes are relatively the safest, as they have high-capacity air handling including HEPA filers with scheduled maintenance,” Lover wrote. “Buses and trains have less rigorous air handling, and might have maintenance issues in some places. With taxis/ride services, best to keep masking and crack a window if possible.”

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Lover added that future masking protocols may depend on periods of heightened transmission of the virus.

“Our ‘new normal’ may simply require masking for periods with increased transmission; it’s not the situation we’d all been hoping for, but the virus is still here and will remain a public health threat for the foreseeable future,” Lover wrote.

Dr. David H. Hamer, professor of global health and medicine at the Boston University Schools of Public Health and Medicine, said via email that he was somewhat caught off guard by the court ruling striking down the mandate.

“I am a bit shocked by the Florida judge’s ruling,” Hamer wrote. “Although numbers of cases have been declining on average across the US, they have been rising in certain states like MA. There remains a risk of transmission, mainly due to the highly transmissible BA.2 variant. I think it is premature to drop mask use on public transportation.”

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Hamer said certain settings like planes, trains, taxis, and rideshares such as Uber and Lyft “are high risk for transmission if the ride is longer duration and windows cannot be open. Public buses may be slightly better if the windows are open but even there one needs to be cautious. I would advise people, especially those who are potentially more vulnerable to infection as a result of age or underlying medical conditions, to continue to wear masks on public transport especially airplanes or any rides of longer duration.”

Hamer noted that airports can be crowded.

And, he said, “even though there is very good air circulation once a plane is running its engines, during boarding when the engines are off, there is limited air movement or filtration so the risk is much higher. Trains, subways, and cars (taxi, Uber, Lyft) are lower risk but this really depends too on air flow (open windows where feasible will help).”

Mizelle said in her ruling that the mandate “exceeds the CDC’s statutory authority and violates the procedures required for agency rule making.”

Among the chorus of experts who said Tuesday that they’d keep masking up in the air was Dr. Ashish K. Jha, the White House coronavirus response coordinator.

“This was deeply disappointing,” Jha tweeted of Mizelle’s ruling. “CDC scientists had asked for 15 days to make a more data-driven durable decision. We should have given it to them. But I’ll continue to follow CDC guidance & mask up on planes.”

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The CDC had recently extended the mask mandate until May 3 to allow more time to study the BA.2 omicron subvariant of coronavirus now responsible for most cases in the U.S.

Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, tweeted that the ruling has direct implications for his family on their upcoming commercial flight.

“When I bought my tickets for me, my wife (who is pregnant), and our unvaccinated 4-year-old, I assumed you would continue to have a mask mandate,” Faust tweeted at his airline. “Now you cancel it and we will have to board our return flight under your new no mask required policy?! Thanks so much.”

Faust added that the ruling means “a small number of babies will die of Covid, when we’re weeks away from” vaccination for all ages over 6 months.

“Imagine celebrating the deaths of a small number of kids so that you don’t have to wear a mask on a plane,” Faust tweeted. “What happened to decency?”

In an indication that train operators remain leery of potential transmission of the virus, Amtrak tweeted Tuesday that masks are still “an important preventive measure,” and that anyone who feels they need to wear one during a trip is urged to do so.

“While Amtrak passengers and employees are no longer required to wear masks while onboard trains or in stations, masks are welcome and remain an important preventive measure against COVID-19,” Amtrak tweeted. “Anyone needing or choosing to wear one is encouraged to do so.”

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Material from Globe wire services including the Associated Press and prior Globe stories was used in this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.