The Biden administration is extending the mask mandate for travelers on airplanes, trains and other transit systems into May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday.
The current requirement that all travelers wear face coverings had been set to expire next Monday, but the Transportation Security Administration will now extend the requirement for an additional 15 days, through May 3, the CDC announced.
"Since early April, there have been increases in the 7-day moving average of cases in the U.S.," the statement said. "In order to assess the potential impact the rise of cases has on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and health care system capacity, the CDC Order will remain in place at this time."
Case numbers have increased in some regions of the country, but so far, much of the rise hasn't been met with a return of mitigation efforts like mandatory masking. Philadelphia on Monday became the first major city to reinstate an indoor mask mandate since the CDC advised in February that most people can go without masks indoors.
Cases are being driven by the BA.2 omicron subvariant, which experts have warned is highly contagious. There have also been warnings that the extent of the latest surge may not be apparent because more people are using home tests and not reporting positive results to government officials.
Hospitalizations, however, have remained at some of their lowest levels since the start of the pandemic, even in areas where case number are rising.
Airlines had begun to push the administration to let the mandate expire. Airlines have been left to enforce the masking requirements while increasingly more states and localities have dropped their requirements that people wear face coverings in public.
The group Airlines for America, which represents the 10 major U.S. carriers, asked the administration in a letter Wednesday to drop the mask and pre-departure testing requirement for international flights.
"Neither restriction is currently supported by data and science in today’s public health environment," the letter argues. "It is very difficult to understand why masks are still required on airplanes, but not needed in crowded bars and restaurants; in packed sports arenas; in schools full of children; or at large indoor political gatherings. Simply put, an extension of the mask mandate does not make sense."
The White House had said it was leaving the decision up to the CDC.
Under current CDC guidelines about mask usage, 99 percent of the country falls into the category of medium to low levels of community spread where the agency says masks aren't necessary.
Transport Workers Union International President John Samuelsen argued in a statement that a continued mandate should highlight the need for legislation to address unruly passengers.
"We cannot ignore that the mask mandate has driven an unprecedented rise in assaults by unruly passengers against airline workers, who are essential to ensuring the public can travel safely," Samuelsen said. "That’s why the TWU is calling for the passage of the Protection from Abusive Passengers Act, which will protect airline crew members, security screening personnel and airline customers by banning abusive passengers from commercial aircraft flights, even after the mask mandate is eventually lifted."