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Federal judge strikes down travel mask mandate. What's this mean for air travelers?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Travelers in the U.S. no longer have to mask up while in airports and on airplanes. A federal judge in Florida called the Biden administration's requirement for mask-wearing on public transportation unlawful and struck it down. The ruling also applies to buses, trains and other public transportation, and it puts the decision in the hands of individual businesses. NPR's David Schaper is in Chicago, and he spoke with us earlier about the ruling.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Well, you know, the judge in this case vacated the mandate, saying it exceeds the CDC's statutory authority. It violates the procedures required for agency rulemaking under the law. The judge also says the CDC had not adequately explained its reasoning for the mandate. You know, just last week, the CDC had extended this transportation mask mandate, which had been in place since February of last year, and it was extended into May. But now the TSA is saying that it will no longer enforce it in public transportation and transportation hubs or at airports or on airlines. All of the major airlines, including American, Delta, Southwest and United, along with Amtrak, say they won't require passengers and employees to wear masks. But many transit agencies around the country, including those in New York and Chicago, say they will still require masks. So, you know, it might be a little confusing out there.

FADEL: You know, for some, I imagine it's terrifying to be on a long flight with other maskless passengers. For others, maybe it's a relief not to have to wear it on a long flight. How are airline passengers responding?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, there were celebrations mid-flight by some travelers when they first heard the news.

FADEL: Right.

SCHAPER: At Chicago's O'Hare Airport last night, most passengers were still wearing their masks while checking in and going through security or waiting for luggage. But after a long flight from Puerto Rico, 35-year-old Miechie Williams of Chicago was ready to ditch his mask.

MIECHIE WILLIAMS: We've been ready to ditch them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: We was ready to ditch them when they first made us wear them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.

WILLIAMS: I can understand if you want to be more precautious. There's nothing wrong with that. But to say that everybody needs to wear it - no, I don't agree with that.

SCHAPER: On the other hand, Renee and Robert Messick of suburban Palatine, who had just returned from a cruise in the Caribbean, say they felt safer traveling when everyone was required to wear masks.

RENEE MESSICK: For me, it's a matter of respect for myself and for other people.

ROBERT MESSICK: I'd rather see us be safe than sorry. I'm grateful to Biden for, you know, trying to protect us as best they could.

FADEL: So how are our public health official experts reacting? Do they think it's safe for people in these confined spaces on planes, trains and buses to be maskless?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, many of the infectious disease experts and public health officials remain concerned about these increasing numbers of the BA.2 variant COVID cases. They say this public health crisis just isn't over yet.

Julia Raifman is a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. She says masks are proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19, especially when everyone is wearing them. She says even though the air filtration systems on airplanes are very good, they're not foolproof when you're sitting shoulder to shoulder next to a stranger for hours at a time.

JULIA RAIFMAN: You know, you can imagine if somebody right next to you is sneezing or coughing, you really are in better shape if you're wearing a mask, and especially if both of you are wearing a mask.

SCHAPER: She also worries about the exposure some people may have on public transit, especially among people who may not have any other options for getting to work.

FADEL: Could the Biden administration appeal?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki yesterday called the judge's ruling disappointing and says the administration is considering its legal options and may, in fact, go ahead and appeal. There are those experts out there who say this ruling could be overturned.

FADEL: NPR's David Schaper. Thank you, David.

SCHAPER: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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