Despite strong pressure from airlines, the hospitality industry and Republican lawmakers to lift the rule requiring masks on planes and trains, at airports and on some buses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that they would extend the two-week federal transport mask requirement on Wednesday, five days before it expires. The mask’s mandate is now extended until May 3, the agency said.
The CDC cited the spread of the Omicron subvariant of the coronavirus known as BA.2, which the agency says now accounts for more than 85% of new virus cases in the United States, in its decision to maintain the mask requirement.
“Since early April, there have been increases in the 7-day rolling average of cases in the United States,” the agency said in a statement. “In order to assess the potential impact of increased cases on serious illness, including hospitalizations and deaths, and health care system capacity, the CDC order will remain in place for the time being.”
Prior to the decision, Dr. Ashish K. Jha, the White House’s new Covid response coordinator, told NBC’s “Today” program that CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky would use a “created framework by CDC scientists. to determine if the extension was necessary.
“We will collectively make a decision based on that,” he said while simultaneously calling it a CDC decision.
In recent days, new cases in the United States have started to appear again. On Tuesday, the country was reporting an average of more than 31,000 new cases a day, up 8% from two weeks earlier, according to a New York Times database.
New York and Washington, D.C., are among the areas of the country with the steepest recent increases, although case numbers have not approached the peaks seen during Omicron’s winter surge. Reported cases may to some extent be an underestimate of the true spread of the virus, as access to home testing has increased and the results of such tests are often not officially reported.
The possibility of an extension had drawn applause from some travelers and commuters, who say the requirement makes them feel safer on planes, airports and crowded buses as new variants spread, and the disappointment to others, who feel it is absurd to require masks in the sky and at airports when they are no longer needed in most other indoor settings. Public health experts have said masks help slow transmission of the virus.
“It’s nonsense,” said Ari Fleischer, a media consultant who served as President George W. Bush’s White House spokesman. wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “Either there is a public health threat requiring all citizens to wear masks everywhere, or there is none.”
Dr. Lucky Tran, scientist and activist who was one of the organizers of the March for Science in 2017, took an opposite position on the same platform.
“The CDC is extending the mask mandate for public transportation by two weeks,” he wrote. “It’s not enough. Millions of people depend on public transport every day to get to work or access essential services.
In recent months, airlines and the hospitality industry have lobbied the White House to rescind both the mask rule and the requirement to test before returning to the United States from overseas. In one of the most recent letters, dated April 8, Airlines for America, an industry group representing eight airlines; the US Travel Association, a trade group representing more than 1,000 public and private organizations serving business and leisure travelers; the United States Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobbying group; and the American Hotel and Lodging Association, which represents thousands of hotels, sent a letter to Dr. Jha, saying what they consider unnecessary measures are hurting the country economically.
“While the public health benefits of these policies have declined significantly, the economic costs associated with maintaining these measures are significant,” they wrote.
On Wednesday, shortly before the CDC’s announcement, Airlines for America sent another letter to Dr. Walensky, the CDC’s director, asking for a detailed explanation of why masks are still needed on airplanes.
“If the federal mask’s mandate is extended, the administration should release the data and science used to achieve it,” Nicholas E. Calio, the president of the group, wrote.
By many accounts, enforcement was one of the most challenging aspects of the mask mandate, with many passengers verbally and even physically attacking flight attendants who reminded them to cover their noses and mouths. Prior to the ruling, major unions representing flight attendants and Transportation Security Administration employees, the two groups that must enforce the rule, declined to take a position.
“Whatever the agency puts in place, we have to abide by it,” Hydrick Thomas, president of the union that represents Transportation Security Administration employees, said Tuesday. He added that he believed the masks protected his employees, their families and “the flying public”.
The CDC could again extend the mask rule before May 3 or let it expire.