Passengers on US airlines and public transportation will be able to travel without masks for the first time in more than a year next week if the federal government keeps to its current plan to let a pandemic-era mandate expire.

Transportation groups and state and local authorities are urging President Joe Biden to lift the mask requirement, which he extended for a month until April 18 as the omicron variant added to the nation’s Covid case count. In recent weeks, the number of reported cases has begun to rise, prompting some municipal governments, such as Philadelphia, to reintroduce indoor mask use.

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Officials from the White House and the Transportation Security Administration are debating whether to revise or prolong the mask regulation with their counterparts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The decision will have an enormous impact on the country’s economy, healthcare system, and millions of daily commuters.

Dr Ashish Jha, the White House’s new Covid-19 response coordinator, told on NBC’s “Today” show Monday that the CDC will release a “scientific framework” to help determine if the mask requirement should be retained.  “I think it is absolutely on the table,”  Jha said of the rule’s extension.

“I’m hoping that the mask mandate will be lifted,” Janno Lieber, chair and CEO of New York‘s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the country’s largest mass-transit provider, said on March 24.  “Not because I have any status as an epidemiologist, but because mask mandates have come off in the rest of society.” Masks are no longer required in schools, restaurants, gyms, or arenas in the United States.

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Transit Demand

Last Monday, organisations such as the US Chamber of Commerce and the US Travel Association urged Jha to repeal the mask requirement and the rule for pre-departure testing for vaccinated passengers travelling to the US. The measures “no longer provide the public health benefits they once did,” according to the report. “Today, these regulations impose considerable costs on passengers, airline personnel, and the American travel and tourism businesses.”

According to the American Public Transit Association, demand for transit in the United States is roughly 60% of pre-pandemic levels.

Some state and local transit officials, wary of the Biden administration’s decision, say they’re planning to operate their systems without enforcing the mask ban if that’s the direction from the US government. The Chicago Transit Authority, New Jersey Transit, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates New York City’s three major airports, are among those on the list.

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The MTA and New Jersey Transit have stated that they will notify consumers of changes to the mask mandate via social media and push notifications while deleting mask requirement signs and public address communications. Officials at Miami International Airport, as well as the federally operated Reagan National and Dulles International airports, have stated that they will follow TSA instructions.

Bay Area Rapid Transit has no plans to implement its mask mandate in San Francisco. BART intends to boost customer communication about potential changes, including an ad campaign regarding Merv 14 air filters installed in all train carriages.

“We want riders to know there is an extra layer of protection on board trains, even crowded trains,” said BART spokesperson Alicia Trost in an email.

According to an Amtrak representative, if the TSA mandate is lifted, the national rail system is preparing several customer and employee communications. Amtrak will decide how to respond once detailed U.S. instructions are available, while a representative for Los Angeles World Airports said officials are waiting for confirmation of any changes to the directive.

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Riders are more likely to be exposed to the illness if fewer individuals use masks. While omicron and its new BA.2 form are extremely contagious, Covid cases are down from December and early January highs.

On Tuesday, David Young, 81, a New York City citizen, said he wanted masks to stay at the 59th Street – Lexington Avenue subway station. “I’d rather wear a mask than risk having Covid,” he explained.

However, many travellers appreciate the end of wearing a mask during their commute or trip.

“If there’s an indoor mask mandate for public space, there should be one for transit; but if there’s not, then we have to think hard about the consequences of treating transit differently,” said Danny Pearlstein, a spokeswoman for Riders Alliance, a transportation advocacy group, over the phone. “Continuing the mandate long after there is no indoor mask mandate generally makes people afraid of transit and makes enforcement especially complicated.”