ORLANDO, Fla.—Airports, city subways and transportation companies were split on allowing travelers to remove their masks for the first time in over a year Tuesday, following the abrupt end to America’s mask mandate on mass transport, including on board aircraft.
On Monday, a Florida federal judge declared the Biden administration’s Covid-19 mask mandate for public transportation unlawful, throwing out its requirement that travelers in the U.S. wear masks on airplanes, trains, taxis, buses and other forms of mass transit.
Soon after, a Biden administration official said the mandate is no longer in effect while the government considers its next steps. The White House on Tuesday said the Justice Department was weighing whether it would appeal the ruling, with press secretary
saying these reviews typically take a few days.
Following the judge’s ruling, the Transportation Security Administration said it would stop enforcing mask mandates, as did major U.S. airlines on domestic flights. Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. said they would no longer require U.S. riders or drivers to wear masks.
While several American airports dropped the mandate, some didn’t.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the area’s airports, said Tuesday that mask rules would stay in place at New York’s JFK and LaGuardia airports. Masks wouldn’t be required at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, the agency said.
In Philadelphia, a city health department mandate requires everyone to wear a face mask in public indoor settings, so mask mandates still apply on the city’s airport campus and across all terminals.
In Illinois, Chicago’s airports and commuter rail service said they would require masks Tuesday morning, but that changed after Gov.
said he would revise an executive order that required masks on public transportation.
Elsewhere, local transit agencies were split on whether to keep or lose mask rules.
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New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority said the mask requirement on public transit remains in effect for now, under a March 2 determination by the state Department of Health.
Others followed the federal government’s lead. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said masks are no longer required on NJ Transit.
At New York City’s JFK Airport on Tuesday morning, signs in the preboarding area of Terminal 4 reminded travelers to wear masks in accordance with federal law. An announcement played over the PA system reminding travelers to “wear a face mask when required and follow the instructions of staff.” A similar announcement played on the AirTrain, which connects passenger terminals.
On a Delta Air Lines flight from JFK to Orlando early Tuesday, there were no reminders to wear masks.
Instead, during the predeparture announcements, the pilot, Capt.
said: “Welcome on our first flight without the mask mandate,” followed by whoops and cheers from some passengers. Most passengers on the flight didn’t wear masks. On the Delta flight to Orlando, most flight attendants wore masks.
In a note to employees Monday, Delta said employees and customers may continue wearing masks if they so choose. The airline also said it could take time for the news to reach airline and TSA employees and for airport signage to be updated.
“Remember to show understanding and patience with others who may not be aware enforcement is no longer required,” the note to employees said.
president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said the union has members on both sides of the mask debate. Some have young children or caregiving obligations and wanted mask requirements to continue, she said, but enforcing the rules has been a strain.
“Flight attendants are sick and tired of having to remind people to do something they agreed to do when they bought the ticket, when they checked in for the flight, and when they got to the airport,” she said.
president of the union that represents
Southwest Airlines Co.
flight attendants, said most of the union’s members have been hoping the mask requirement would be lifted.
Flight attendants faced confrontations and, in some instances, violent encounters with passengers while trying to enforce the mask rules. Southwest’s flight attendants union wrote last month to President Biden, Transportation Secretary
then-administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, urging them to lift the mask mandate, citing the rise in incidents involving unruly passengers.
“We hope those numbers will come down,” Ms. Montgomery said.
About half of passengers in Orlando International Airport’s main terminal were masked Tuesday. The Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, which operates the airport, said it would remove signs and messaging throughout the airport. Enhanced cleaning methods will remain in place, it said.
For passengers, the first full day of travel without a mask mandate brought a mix of reactions, with some expressing concern and others joy. Because much of the airport signage and announcements still reminded passengers to wear masks, some passengers said they were confused or unaware the rules had changed.
26 years old, traveled to Orlando from Hanover, Pa., with his wife and toddler. The family is spending the next eight days in Florida, with a visit to Disney, and are looking forward to the character meet-and-greets. Mr. Lippy, who is vaccinated, said he was glad to see the mandate removed.
“At this point, there’s no way you’re going to get her to wear a mask,” he said of his daughter, who he said struggled with wearing a mask for long periods.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its website Monday after the court ruling, acknowledging that the mask requirement on public transportation and at transportation hubs is no longer in effect. The agency said, however, that it continues to recommend that people wear masks on planes and other public conveyances.
“We know that people are still traveling when they’re positive,” said CDC spokeswoman
noting that asymptomatic people can spread the virus.
The virus that causes Covid-19 is primarily transmitted through virus-laden respiratory droplets or smaller particles called aerosols, which infected people expel into the air when they cough, sneeze, sing, talk or breathe. Masks can serve as a barrier, helping block exhaled virus from an infected person. They can also help reduce the amount of virus inhaled by the wearer.
Throughout the pandemic, laboratory-based studies and observational data have demonstrated that mask wearing can help curb the spread of the virus, particularly when they are worn properly and broadly in a community. In one study, local and federal researchers found that from August to October 2021, school districts in Arkansas with universal mask requirements had a 23% lower incidence of Covid-19 among staff members and students compared with districts without those requirements, according to a CDC report.
While travel companies changed their mask rules on Tuesday, some other businesses and industries have been loosening mandates for several weeks. Employers including
JPMorgan Chase & Co.
Verizon Communications Inc.
, for example, told staffers that masks would be voluntary at many sites following guidance from public-health authorities.
There has also been an uptick in office reopening. Offices in 10 major U.S. cities were, on average, about 42.8% occupied in mid-April, near a pandemic-era peak, according to badge-swipe data from security company Kastle Systems.
Changing attitudes about the pandemic were also seen in
Johnson & Johnson’s
Tuesday earnings report as the healthcare-products company backed off its full-year sales forecast for its Covid-19 vaccine, citing a global surplus of doses and uncertainty over how the course of the pandemic will affect demand.
Colleen and Mike Stankewich, of Guilford, Conn., were flying to Atlanta, then on to Turks and Caicos for a weeklong trip on Tuesday.
Ms. Stankewich, 52, said she was disappointed when she heard the news of the federal judge’s ruling. At first, she thought the ruling only pertained to cruises and flights out of Florida, but later realized that wasn’t the case.
She has been keeping an eye on the rise in cases related to the Omicron BA.2 variant. “It’s one way we can help keep each other safe and allow people to get to where they want to go,” she said of wearing a mask. “It’s a pretty benign ask.”
Some passengers said they still weren’t sure about the rules.
of Long Island, N.Y., waited to board a flight to Aruba with his wife and two children, ages 13 and 10. Mr. Balkas, 41, says he has been against the mask mandate from the beginning and intentionally booked his flight for April 19 because it would have been after the mandate was intended to expire on April 18.
Last week, the mandate was extended, but ultimately struck down on April 18 by the Florida judge.
Mr. Balkas wasn’t wearing a mask in the airport and said he wasn’t sure whether he needed to wear a mask on the flight itself, but brought one just in case. “It should be everyone’s choice at this point,” he said.
Capt. Buckley, the pilot of the Delta flight from JFK to Orlando, said he was relieved the mandate was gone, especially for the sake of flight attendants who don’t have to enforce it. “It’s one less contention on the aircraft,” he said.
—Betsy McKay and Scott Calvert contributed to this article.
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