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The federal transportation mask mandate has been extended


Air travelers and commuters will have to keep their faces covered a little bit longer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is extending the mask mandate for public transportation. Instead of expiring next week, it continues through May 3. NPR's Pien Huang reports.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Masks are needed on the train. Masks are needed on the plane. The CDC says that passengers and workers must continue to wear masks on ferries, subways, buses, taxis and rideshares, too, for at least the next three weeks. James Hodge, a public health law professor at Arizona State University, says the measure makes sense.

JAMES HODGE: We do have upward trends of infections. CDC is responding to the data, and it's implementing the measure it has the authority to do.

HUANG: The CDC - with the Transportation Safety Administration, or TSA - has required masks on public transport for the past 14 months. The order has almost expired a few times, but the agencies keep extending it. This to the chagrin of travel industry trade groups, who, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter to the White House this week asking for the mask mandates to stop. They said it imposes costs on travelers and that enforcement often falls on workers, like flight attendants, dealing with passengers who don't want to wear their masks. And some experts argue that the CDC is sending mixed messages by extending the mask mandate for travel.

Dr. Monica Gandhi is an infectious disease physician at UC San Francisco. She points out that according to CDC's own metrics, 95% of U.S. counties have low COVID community levels, meaning people there can live, learn, work and shop without masks.

MONICA GANDHI: The entire country, at this point, really doesn't have an indoor mask mandate. It's really not consistent to have a mask mandate on a plane or a bus versus the whole community.

HUANG: Another discordance - the mask mandate applies to city buses, but not to school buses. Still, Zinzi Bailey, a social epidemiologist at the University of Miami, says the CDC's mask mandate for travelers can make a meaningful difference.

ZINZI BAILEY: When we are in enclosed public spaces with other people who may be from a variety of different locations, it's prudent to have a mask, right?

HUANG: That's especially true now. In the past two weeks, the U.S. has seen a 20% increase in cases. So far, it's been mostly concentrated in certain areas like the Northeast. Bailey says it's important to try and keep regional outbreaks from spreading.

BAILEY: When we are in a plane, we don't know who we are coming into contact with or who is traveling from where. Without a mask mandate, we are kind of exposing everybody to what might be a localized surge.

HUANG: She says it also protects people at high medical risk who have to be in these enclosed spaces. The CDC says they're extending the travel mask mandate to May 3 to assess the recent rise in COVID cases caused by the spread of the BA.2 omicron subvariant.

Right now, Dr. Ashish Jha, the new White House coronavirus coordinator, says the U.S. is still having a reasonably good COVID moment.

ASHISH JHA: Infection numbers are relatively low. We have fewer people in the hospital right now than at any point in the pandemic.

HUANG: But health officials are watching for any signs that the uptick in cases could lead to big increases in serious disease and hospital strain. That's why the CDC is keeping the travel mask mandate, at least for now.

Pien Huang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORBA SQUARA SONG, "TOMORROW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.