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States, public transit systems shift gears on mask requirements

"I am concerned that we are dropping mask mandates as new variants are popping up," one public transit passenger said.

A federal judge’s decision to strike down the Biden administration’s transportation mask mandate pushed several local public transit systems across the country to drop their own requirements, drawing both praise and rebuke from customers.

Masks are now optional on buses in Atlanta, streetcars in New Orleans and light rail in Portland, Oregon. Passengers also need not worry about masking up on public transit in Cincinnati, Des Moines, Philadelphia, Chicago and elsewhere — a list that kept growing Tuesday.

The changes come after U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Florida ruled Monday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mask mandate for planes, trains and buses was unlawful, leading major U.S. airlines and Amtrak to immediately scrap the requirement.

It was welcome news for Frank DeGarcia who commutes from New Jersey to New York and finds mask rules arbitrary.

“It seems to me the average law-abiding person is just doing it because we’re told to now,” DeGarcia said. “We don’t have to wear them in restaurants, we don’t have to wear them in our offices but magically we have to wear them on the subway. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

But others, who rely on trains and buses as their primary means of transportation, were concerned that the rules were being lifted too soon.

“I am concerned that we are dropping mask mandates as new variants are popping up,” Jenny Lando, 51, of Queens, New York, said during her Tuesday train ride.

“Especially on public transportation, which is sometimes crowded and does not always have good airflow.”

The mandate revocation has not been universal.

Northern California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and others have told riders to keep their masks on, for now.

“BART officials are currently touching base with other transit agencies in the Bay Area and looking to see if there is any movement on the local, state, or federal, level about a mask mandate for transit,” said spokeswoman Alicia Trost. “BART hasn’t made an official or final determination if a mask mandate will continue on BART.”

Chicago flip-flopped in a matter of hours on Tuesday. Early in the day, the Chicago Transit Authority, in a statement to NBC News, said it would continue to require masks on public transit in accordance with an executive order from Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Later in the day, the governor’s office announced he was revising the order and that masks would no longer be required.

The diverging policies have already led to some confusion for commuters.

In the New York area, for instance, the Metro Transit Authority in New York City still requires its passengers to mask up, but transit passengers in the state of New Jersey, which has dropped the mask mandate, no longer need to.

Lando, who typically uses the MTA to commute to work every morning, found herself traveling between both states to visit family. She said she kept her mask on to be safe.

“I take the MTA almost daily and am grateful they are upholding the mask mandate. It is a safe thing to do,” she said. Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for Riders Alliance, a public transit advocacy group in New York, said it makes sense that New York City, once the epicenter of the U.S. Covid outbreak, would keep its measures in place.

“Maybe in other parts of the country the judge’s decision is where people’s heads are at, but here I think most people feel most comfortable wearing a mask,” said. “People don’t want to have to worry about getting Covid on top of all the other things going on.”

In Denver, which dropped its transportation mask requirement Tuesday morning, train passengers were split on whether they would still mask up.

Briannee Osteen, 25, said she would stop wearing a mask while using public transportation. 

“I usually wear a mask when there’s a lot of people close and then I usually don’t if there’s not. I was vaccinated,” she said, adding that her boyfriend had contracted Covid but she did not, although they live together. “I feel safe.”

But Theodis Moore, 72, said he’ll continue wearing a mask no matter what.

“I don’t want to catch anything. I feel safer with a mask,” he said.