‘A bit of whiplash’: Public transit riders encounter patchwork of mask rules across US

NEW YORK — A day after a federal judge voided the nationwide mask mandate on public transportation, passengers encountered a patchwork of rules across the U.S. as some transit agencies and ground transportation companies were left to decide their own policies.

At Moynihan Train Hall, where Amtrak and Long Island Rail Road operate, many travelers were without masks Tuesday after Amtrak decided to lift its own mandate. Robyn Baun, who was returning to Buffalo, said the news left her uneasy.

“I was feeling a bit of whiplash,” Baun told USA TODAY. “The pandemic isn’t over and when mandates are lifted, cases tend to rise. So knowing the mandate safety net could be lifted mid-trip was disorienting.”

Although masks are still required on public transit in New York City, a handful passengers ditched them on several subway trains Tuesday morning. Adel Lami, who was riding the Q train headed to 34th Street Herald Square, said wearing a mask “should be a personal choice.”.

“Because I’m vaccinated three shots, I don’t feel the need for a mask,” said Lami, a dancer who lives on the Upper East Side.

AIRLINES HAVE DROPPED THEIR MASK MANDATES: But where are masks still required?

Ange Heimowitz and Robyn Baun said the priority is to wear masks for others as they headed to Buffalo on Amtrak Tuesday afternoon.
New York City’s public transit system said Tuesday it plans to keep its mask requirement in place on city buses, subway trains and two commuter rail lines. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is following a directive from the state department of health, MTA spokesperson Tim Minton said.

The MTA is one of many public transit agencies and other ground transportation companies, like Uber and Lyft, grappling with the fallout from a judge’s order Monday that canceled the federal mandate, leaving a patchwork of policies for commuters across the country.

John Costa, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union International, the largest labor union representing transit and allied workers in the U.S. and Canada, urged members and riders to remain “calm amidst the uncertainty and confusion.”

The federal mask mandate, first implemented in January 2021, was set to expire Monday but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week it would extend it for 15 days.

Then, on Monday, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa voided the mandate, saying the rule exceeded the CDC’s authority and that the agency failed to justify the order and didn’t follow proper rulemaking procedures.

Not long after, the Transportation Security Administration announced it would no longer enforce the policy, which applied to airplanes, airports, taxis and other mass transit. A Biden administration official said federal agencies are reviewing the decision and assessing potential next steps.

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Many major airlines immediately dropped their mask mandates. Airlines had lobbied for months to kill the requirement citing air filters they say make transmission of COVID-19 highly unlikely during a flight.

Amtrak, Uber and Lyft followed suit.

Rideshare passengers have largely refused to wear masks throughout the pandemic and the ruling will only make it more difficult for drivers who want riders to continue wearing face coverings to protect their own health, said Nicole Morre, a member of Rideshare Drivers United, an advocacy group of more than 20,000 drivers in California.

“It’s extremely concerning to us,” she said of the judge’s ruling. “No driver has said to me in the past 2½ years – ‘I just wish I could take my mask off.'”

The policy change won’t apply in New York City, where ride-hailing services are regulated by the NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission, which still requires masks be worn in all yellow taxis and app-based rideshare vehicles.

Mask-wearing requirements on local transit, meanwhile, varied from place to place.

NJ Transit, which operates buses and trains connecting stops in New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia, will no longer enforce its mask mandate, according to its website.

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

Transit authorities in Philadelphia announced a similar move, one week after the city announced it would reinstate a mask mandate amid a 50% increase in reported COVID-19 cases.

Other major cities including Chicago, Portland and Seattle will keep their mask mandates in place.

‘I WAS HAPPY. I COULD BREATHE BETTER’:Travelers, crew left confused after mask mandate was lifted

“If the CTA’s policy changes, we will notify customers,” the Chicago Transit Authority said in a statement to USA TODAY. “We ask that customers continue to follow the mask requirement and be considerate of other riders and employees.”

Riders on San Francisco’s network of buses, light rail trains, historic streetcars and cable cars will still be required to wear masks, the city’s transportation agency said on Twitter after the ruling, noting that even when requirements change “masks will be a good option.”

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