CDC COVID guidelines: Nationwide mask mandate for airports, planes, trains and public transit could be relaxed next month, officials say

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WASHINGTON — Federal authorities are extending the requirement for masks on airplanes and public transportation for an additional month — through mid-April — while taking steps that could lead to the rule being lifted.

The mask mandate was set to expire on March 18, but the Transportation Security Administration said Thursday it would extend the requirement until April 18.

The TSA said the additional month will give the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention time to develop new, more targeted policies that will take into account the number of COVID-19 cases nationally and in local communities. , and the risk of new variants.

The TSA enforces the mask rule, which extends to planes, buses, trains and transit centers.

As of March 3, more than 90% of the U.S. population lives in areas with low or medium COVID-19 case rates, meaning the CDC no longer recommends face masks in indoor public places.

A move to eventually scrap the mask requirement — one of the last vestiges of nationwide pandemic rules — has become more likely in recent weeks as more states, even those with Democratic governors, have relaxed their own mandates for wearing masks indoors, and the CDC has relaxed its recommendations.

That led critics to question why the CDC would allow people without masks to congregate in movie theaters and sports arenas, but not on airplanes.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that deciding the right travel policy is more complicated than setting standards for local communities to follow.

“If you’re moving from one area to another and picking up people … that’s a little bit different, and it requires some consultation, which (CDC officials) will strive to do from here. April 18,” PSAki said.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said last week that her agency needed to study the science around the transmission of the virus “but also the epidemiology and how often we may come across a concerning variant or an interesting variant in our corridors of travel”.

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The federal mask mandate was imposed in January 2021, days after President Joe Biden took office, and has been extended several times. The Trump administration had refused to require masks on public transportation, but airlines began requiring them in mid-2020 to reassure passengers worried about contracting the virus.

The requirement has become a lightning rod for confrontation between some passengers and airline crews. Since the start of 2021, airlines have reported more than 6,000 incidents of unruly passengers, most involving disputes over mask-wearing. This history could make it unlikely that airlines will require masks once the federal rule expires.

“I don’t think the airlines have the slightest desire to impose their own demands at this point against a public that is weary of these restrictions,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group.

On four flights he took this week, Harteveldt said: “I noticed that there were passengers who weren’t wearing their masks even when they weren’t eating or drinking, and the flight attendants didn’t ask them to put them on.”

In September, the Transportation Security Administration doubled fines for people who refuse to wear masks on public transportation to $500 to $1,000 for first-time offenders and up to $3,000 for repeat violations.

News of the extension and policy review was first reported by Reuters.

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David Koenig reported from Dallas.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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