The TSA will extend its mask mandate for airports, planes, buses and rail systems after consulting with the CDC, according to an administration official and a TSA official. The directive applying to all public transportation and transit hubs had been set to expire on March 18 and now will stay in effect through April 18.
In the interim, the officials say the CDC, which debuted its heavily relaxed mask guidance late last month as COVID rates plunge across the country, will work with government agencies to help inform a revised framework for when, and under which circumstances, masks should be required in public transit.
“This revised framework will be based on the COVID-19 community levels, risk of new variants, national data, and the latest science,” the administration official said. “We will communicate any updates publicly if and/or when they change.”
The federal government has twice extended its face mask mandate for public transit, but speculation had swirled around a possible change after the CDC released new guidance saying the vast majority of Americans needn’t wear masks indoors. Most states, including New York, have dropped their mandates already.
As of Thursday, about three-quarters of all U.S. counties have a COVID risk assessment below the threshold at which the federal agency would recommend masks indoors. Learn more about how the CDC determines that here.
But transit settings can be different — and the psychology of masking is another factor entirely. In New York City, for example, which lifted its longstanding mask mandates this week, Mayor Eric Adams said, when asked, that he wasn’t yet at the point where he felt comfortable lifting mask rules for city subways and buses.
“New York is unique and we need to always modify our responses based on intensity. I think we should continue to wear a mask in the subway system,” Adams said. “The CDC will hand down their recommendations, but I’m not at the place where I think we need to spot wearing masks on the subways.”
The TSA may feel similarly. When the CDC announced its change last month, one official with the agency said it would continue to assess the requirement in consultation with the health agency. No further insight was offered.
Trade groups have been pushing for a change. The U.S. Travel Association, American Hotel and Lodging Association, Airlines for America and other groups sent a letter to White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zeintz following the CDC announcement, urging the Biden administration to lift the mask mandate by its planned date and end other COVID travel restrictions.
In the letter, the groups said ending travel advisories, repealing the federal mask mandate and working with other countries to end travel restrictions are crucial to restoring the U.S. economy and workforce.
“Effective, risk-based policies can be reinstated at any time if new variants of concern emerge or the public health situation deteriorates,” the letter read, in part. “It is now time for the administration to lead the country towards a new normal for travel and on a faster path to a full and even economic recovery.”
Just three states — Hawaii, Oregon and Washington — still have mask mandates in place, according to the AARP, but all three of them plan to lift their face coverings rules this month. The latter two plan to lift theirs in two days.
New York City lifted its mask mandate for public schools earlier this week, telling hundreds of thousands of parents that their kids no longer need to be masked to attend class. They can opt to send them with face coverings if they so choose.
Also lifted: The mandate requiring businesses throughout the five boroughs to check customers’ vaccine status at the door. Both developments followed the state’s decision to lift its all-encompassing school mandate earlier this month.
The Key2NYC program requiring businesses to check vaccine status for customers will end. The rule mandating employee vaccinations, though, remains in effect. NBC New York’s Andrew Siff reports.