YouThe morning of April 19th, I found myself in the minority of subway passengers on the Second Avenue Line in New York City. As usual, I wore my mask every day for the past two year on the subway platforms. All around me were bared faces—where only the day before, compliance with the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (MTA) masking rule had been near-total.
That says a lot about the confusion created by the 59-page decision handed down the day before by Florida U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, voiding the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) rule requiring masking on airplanes, airports, taxis, and other forms of public transit, including Amtrak. However, the decision doesn’t prohibit cities or states from maintaining their masking regulations. The MTA will continue to enforce theirs. The great underground unmasking took place in New York City.
The court decision was criticized by the Biden administration in Washington. “This is obviously a disappointing decision,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on April 18. “The CDC [U.S. Centers for Control and Prevention] is recommending wearing a mask on public transit.”
This recommendation won’t be widely followed. At least eight airlines—Delta, American, United, Southwest, Alaska, JetBlue, Frontier and Spirit—have announced that they are lifting their mask mandates. A handful of local transit authorities—including MARTA in Atlanta, SEPTA in Philadelphia, CapMetro in Austin, and New Jersey Transit are similarly allowing passengers to go maskless. Amtrak has also dropped its mask requirement. On the other hand, New York’s MTA; Portland, Oregon’s TriMet; Seattle’s King County Metro; and the Chicago Transit Authority are all keeping mask mandates in place.
These passengers could end up in chaos if they board planes that don’t require masking or land in places where transit authority masking rules are still in effect. Even more concerning is the fact that while planes have air exchange systems which filter out pathogens such as the SARS-CoV-2 viruses, they are not effective in removing them from buses, subways and trains.
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“Millions who rely on buses and trains to get to work, and access essential services every day, will now be put at much greater risk,” tweeted Dr. Lucky Tran, director of science communication and media relations at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center.
What do you need know about mask-wearing to be able to safely travel on transit modes in the new environment? Here’s what we know so far.
Which type of mask should I wear on public transport?
Experts recommend that public transport passengers continue wearing masks, regardless of whether they have been mandated to do so. Experts agree that an N95 is superior to a KN95. This is more than a surgical mask which is better.
Fit is vitally important—loose masks leave plenty of room for pathogens to travel—and N95s and KN95s, with their tighter fit, are clearly the mask of choice to maximize protection in all situations and on all forms of transportation. Wafaa Elsadr is a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. She worries that people will start a long flight or other public transportation trip with very protective masks and then have to remove it halfway. N95 masks, which are much more restrictive than surgical or cloth masks, can be too restricting.
“It’s very hard for some people to wear an N95 mask, particularly on long flights,” she says. “So keep in mind your ability to maintain the mask wearing and then optimize the mask choice based on that.”
Airplanes are being masked
El-Sadr watched the latest changes to masking rules unfold in real-time. The pilot announced to her that masking would no longer be required on flight from San Francisco, New York. El-Sadr, along with most passengers on board, immediately removed his mask.
“While 100% of people were masked when we boarded the flight, I would say about 30% or so were masked when people were getting off,” she says. She remained masked and says that she considers the court ruling striking down the mandate “premature.” There are a lot of reasons for that.
The first is that unmasking advocates make an excellent case for their argument. They point out the effectiveness of the plane’s air exchange system to remove airborne viruses from the cabin. As my colleague Jamie Ducharme has reported, “A 2020 study conducted for the U.S. Department of Defense—and carried out by researchers from Boeing and United Airlines, among others—found that aircraft ventilation and filtration systems reduced the risk of airborne SARS-CoV-2 exposure by more than 99%.”
The systems are only limited. It is one of the most-unloved aspects of air travel that passengers—at least in coach, which is how most people fly—are packed shoulder to shoulder in narrow seats, without much space between rows. It is much easier for pathogens to travel to your lungs from someone next to you than to get to the vents or filters in the air.
“Even with very high levels of filtration, if you’re sitting next to someone who may have COVID but they perceive it as spring allergies and that individual is coughing or sneezing, that’s a very high risk position for you to be in,” says epidemiologist Keri Althoff of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
It is also important to consider the population mix of planes. People gather in airports from all over the world—many from places with high vaccination rates and low levels of transmission and many from places where the opposite, more infectious conditions prevail. That raises the health stakes for everyone onboard: “It is a time of high mixing from an epidemiological perspective,” Althoff says.
Then too, there is the consideration of who you’re meeting on the other end of your flight. The Easter and Passover travel season has just ended, Memorial Day weekend is coming up, and during such travel-heavy times, families and friends gather—including people who are older, have underlying conditions, or are otherwise particularly susceptible to COVID-19. Unmasked travelers may not be able to identify themselves and could end up carrying the virus, which can make others very sick.
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“It’s important to remember who you’re going to go see,” says Althoff. “If you’re planning on visiting someone who has a new baby or if you’re planning to go visit an older loved one you don’t want to inadvertently bring COVID to an individual who may be at higher risk.”
For COVID-19-scared people, there are no scenes that can be more distressing than watching a group of people pushing onto crowded subway trains. There might even be bodies jammed together throughout the trip. Although this is an issue, it’s a good reason to keep your eyes open. Subways may actually be safer than you realize.
For one thing, Althoff points out, platforms typically aren’t as enclosed as they seem, with ventilation and other openings to the outside that do allow for some air exchange. The closer the temperature on the platform is to the temperature outside, the likelier it is that you’re getting at least some helpful ventilation. What’s more, the trains themselves may provide some relief as they enter and leave the station.
“Oftentimes there are wooshes of air,” Althoff says, which can help sweep away some of the stagnant atmosphere on the platform. Once you’re aboard, the fact that the trains make frequent stops with doors continually opening and closing and passengers continually climbing aboard and getting off also helps with air exchange.
Again, it is the season that makes all the difference. Seasonal tourists often visit large cities. Therefore, it is more common to encounter people from low-vaccination areas if there are more outsiders on the platform. Masking can be especially important at times like these, as can social distancing—or at least as much distancing as a packed platform or train allows.
Masking on Buses
It is different from boarding a train or a bus. Your waiting time will be outside, not on an enclosed platform. It can reduce viral transmission. But once you board the bus, there are the same crowding problems as on subways. Therefore, it is a good idea to have your mask on.
Buses have the advantage that they don’t close as often as subways. However, they also open outwardly, which allows for more fresh air to circulate than on subway platforms. Althoff recommends sitting near the door if you can—though there are only so many such seats on a bus and plenty of times it’s standing-room-only anyway.
The dangers of masking in trains
The safety of local commuter and intercity train services is generally higher than subways or buses. In these instances, the journey length is what matters. The more time you spend on the train, the longer you’re exposed to other people in an enclosed space. What’s more, with each stop you encounter new passengers, raising the odds that someone who just climbed aboard is carrying the virus. Althoff says that this risk is particularly high for Amtrak because it has recently dropped the mask requirement.
“On the east coast,” she says, “we have trains that go from D.C. to Boston every day. People get on and off trains; some people live in Philadelphia but work elsewhere. So this is a situation where there’s a step up in the level of mixing of people from different communities with different background rates of transmission and vaccination.” No matter what Amtrak or your local transit system permits, staying masked on trains remains the best way to stay safe.
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This is easily transportation’s most personal means of viral transmission (besides having your own car). It’s you and the driver in an enclosed space breathing common air for the duration of the ride. A virus can spread faster if the ride lasts longer than it should. Lyft as well as Uber have removed the mask requirements. The federal ruling does not require masks in taxis, however states and municipalities can still request them. Masking is still mandatory in New York’s iconic yellow cabs, for example.
It is not easy to ask an unmasked driver for help, but it’s an option. Your best defense is to remain masked. Rolling down windows for better air circulation is another option. By allowing cross-ventilation, it is possible to roll down both the front and back windows.
Protecting those most affected by the new rules
The new rules will make it even easier to follow masking guidelines that were not always followed. But even if others are shedding their masks, you don’t have to.
“We have not eliminated, we have not eradicated this virus,” El-Sadr says. “When we have evidence of ongoing transmission, I think it behooves us in crowded settings, where you don’t know the vaccination status of the people around you, to wear a mask.”
This holds true especially when protecting low-income communities, which have been particularly hard-hit by pandemics and are more likely use public transportation. “These are communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID,” says Althoff. “They have borne greater brunt of morbidity and mortality. So this is a place where I think it is really important to still continue to mask.”
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