Federal mask rule’s end met with cheers and trepidation

Amy Morris was somewhere over Colorado when word came from the flight deck.

Aboard Delta Air Lines Flight 769 from Atlanta to San Francisco, the pilot told passengers the federal mask mandate for transportation had been lifted.

“There was some clapping,” said Morris, a Delta frequent flyer. She estimated nearly a third of passengers on the plane took off their masks. But Morris, who manages clinical trials for drug development, wasn’t one of them.

“It was an interesting experience to see public health change mid-flight,” she said.

A federal judge in Florida on Monday struck down the federal mask rule for public transportation, and the Transportation Safety Administration said it would not enforce it — abruptly ending the requirement that passengers wear face coverings on airplanes, trains and buses. Delta and other major airlines said they would no longer enforce mask rules, as did MARTA and rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft.

ExploreAirline CEOs push for end to mask mandate on planes

The end of the federal face covering rule was met with cheers by some and with trepidation by others concerned about potential spread of the virus to vulnerable people with pre-existing conditions or impaired immune systems or unvaccinated children.

Social media erupted. An emerging gulf between public health experts on the need to mask aboard aircraft only widened, with some saying the change was overdue and others contending it was a dangerous move.

Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends masking on planes and on transit.

When asked Tuesday whether people should wear masks on planes, President Joe Biden said, “That’s up to them,” the Associated Press reported.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner under President Donald Trump, urged travelers to consider “one way masking” or wearing high-quality masks such as KN95s or KF94s, that protect the wearer as well as those around them.

“For those at risk from Covid, or who want added safety even as those around them unmask, (a) high quality mask worn properly can afford a measurable degree of added protection,” Gottlieb said on Twitter.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

But former U.S. surgeon general Jerome Adams posted on Twitter that he worries about “the unintended consequences of eroding health authorities.”

“This isn’t just about planes,” said Adams, who also served under Trump. A 4-year-old cancer patient whose parents have no vehicles, he said, “might be forced to sit next to a floridly sick ... coughing covid patient with no mask on a bus, while going to get chemo.”

Infections low, but rising in the U.S.

Coronavirus infections are near their lowest point nationally since July 2021 following a record-breaking omicron surge. COVID-19 cases are rising in the U.S., largely in the Northeast driven by an omicron subvariant called BA.2, but hospitalizations are at their lowest point since early in the pandemic.

Still, Philadelphia recently announced plans to reinstate its indoor mask mandate.

Only about two-thirds of Americans have received the full course of vaccine with fewer than one-third having received a booster, according to data from COVID Act Now. Children under age 5 are not yet eligible for the shots.

A World Health Organization committee last week said the pandemic remains a public health emergency.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Atlanta-based Delta’s said masks are now optional for its crew members and customers. Rivals including United Airlines, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines also said they would drop their mask requirements.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport followed suit, and MARTA also said it will not enforce the mask mandate until further notice.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Not all U.S. airports are lifting requirements for face coverings. New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport, two popular destinations for Atlanta travelers, still require masks.

At Hartsfield-Jackson on Tuesday, there was a mix of people wearing masks and going unmasked.

Tamar Robinson, who flew back home to Atlanta on Tuesday morning after a trip to visit family in New Jersey, said as soon as he learned a mask was no longer required, he “took it off immediately.”

“It feels like a relief,” Robinson said. Earlier in the pandemic, he wanted to wear a mask in large crowds. But now, he said, “it feels good to be going back to normal, seeing people’s faces and just being able to breathe without a mask on.”

Ann Lis, who flew through Atlanta Tuesday, continued wearing a mask after learning the mandate had ended.

“At this point, I’m still more comfortable in a mask,” said Lis, adding that she has family members with health concerns. “It’s just more peace of mind.”

The rush by major airlines and travel companies to drop masking rules was not unexpected.

The White House has been under intense pressure from the travel industry to drop the mandate. Delta CEO Ed Bastian last week told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that if the federal mask mandate were lifted, Delta would not require masks on flights.

On April 13, the federal government announced a short extension of the mandate to May 3, a signal that changes could be in the works. But the court acted first.


Delta’s travel guidance

  • Masks are now optional on flights
  • Passengers can choose to continue wearing masks. Wearing a well-fitting mask such as a KN95 protects the wearer
  • Travelers are encouraged to carry a mask in case it is required in other locations
  • Mask mandates in other countries may still be in effect