Fliers, Subway Riders Shed Masks: ‘Feel Free To Burn Them’

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.  — Travelers shed their masks and cheered as pilots and conductors announced that a federal judge in Florida had struck down a national mask mandate on airplanes and mass transit.

“Feel free to burn them at will,” a New Jersey conductor told passengers boarding a commuter train Tuesday, drawing light laughter. “Hopefully this is the end of it.”

The judge’s decision Monday freed airlines, airports and mass transit systems to make their own decisions about mask requirements, resulting in a mix of responses. Major airlines and airports in places like Dallas, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City quickly switched to a mask optional policy. New York City was one of the few holdouts to continue requiring masks in its airports and on its public transit system.

Some travelers found the hasty toppling of rules confusing and others were angry they weren’t given any warning, especially since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continued to recommend masking on transportation.

Brooke Tansley, a television producer and former Broadway performer, boarded a flight with her not-yet-eligible-to-be-vaccinated 4-year-old and 8-month-old only to learn that the mask mandate had ended mid-flight.

“Here we are, trapped in the sky with our 8-month-old unmasked baby (you can’t actually mask a baby that young) under the supposition that everyone who can be masked would be masked, and the flight 325 crew has taken our choices away from us,” she said in a tweet. “Very very angry about this.”

The response was far from universal, though. On a Southwest Airlines flight from Detroit to Nashville Monday evening, the change to optional status was incorporated into the safety announcements, prompting murmurs and fist pumps from some passengers and no audible complaints. Still, roughly half the passengers continued to wear protective masks during the hour-and-10-minute flight.

A video showed some passengers on a Delta Air Lines flight cheering and applauding as they took off their masks upon hearing an announcement that they were now optional. One man could be seen happily twirling his mask on his finger.

Many mass transit systems also shed mask rules, including in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Kansas City, Missouri.

Subway rider Cooper Klinges was pleased that New York City’s public transit system wasn’t following the trend and planned to keep its mask requirement in place. As he waited at a train station in Brooklyn, New York, he said he canceled a flight earlier this year over concerns about the virus.

“I don’t think we are out of the woods yet,” said Klinges, a teacher, citing concerns about the BA.2 omicron subvariant of the coronavirus. “It is still around. We have to still stick it out.”

As of Monday evening, the website of ride sharing company Lyft still said masks were required. In an email to customers Tuesday morning, Uber said masks were recommended but no longer required.

The mask requirement covered airlines, airports, mass transit and taxis, and was the biggest vestige of pandemic restrictions that were once the norm across the country. Some flight attendants found themselves cursed at and even attacked by passengers who refused to comply.

The decision Monday by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed to justify its decision and did not follow proper rulemaking procedures that left the mask mandate fatally flawed.

The Justice Department declined to comment when asked if it would seek an emergency stay to block the judge’s order. The CDC also declined to comment.

While airline and mass transit passengers around the country were ditching masks, the White House made clear that those traveling with President Joe Biden to New Hampshire on Tuesday would be required to keep face coverings on “in line with CDC guidance.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki previously described the ruling as “disappointing.”

The CDC had recently extended the mask mandate, which was set to expire Monday, until May 3 to allow more time to study the BA.2 omicron subvariant now responsible for the vast majority of cases in the U.S.

After a winter surge fueled by the omicron variant that led to record hospitalizations, the U.S. has seen a significant drop in virus spread in recent months that led most states and cities to drop mask mandates.

But several Northeast cities have seen a rise in hospitalizations in recent weeks, leading Philadelphia to bring back its mask mandate.

The federal mask requirement for travelers was the target of months of lobbying from the airlines, which sought to kill it. The carriers argued that effective air filters on modern planes make transmission of the virus during a flight highly unlikely.

“We are relieved to see the U.S. mask mandate lift to facilitate global travel as COVID-19 transitions to a more manageable respiratory virus — with better treatments, vaccines and other scientific measures to prevent serious illness,” Delta announced in a news release.

Republicans in Congress also fought to kill the mandate. Critics have seized on the fact that states have rolled back rules requiring masks in restaurants, stores and other indoor settings, and yet COVID-19 cases have fallen sharply since the omicron variant peaked in mid-January.





Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas. Associated Press writers David Koenig in Dallas, Michael Balsamo and Will Weissert in Washington, and Karen Matthews in New York contributed to this report.


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