UPDATE (April 20, 2022, 10:56 a.m. ET): This piece has been updated to reflect that Boston will no longer require passengers on public transportation to wear masks.
Last month, I boarded an airplane in New York to visit my mom and stepdad in Florida. We celebrated his 86th birthday as best we could; both have limitations common for people their age. I timed my visit carefully, traveling while Covid rates were down. I tested at home before departing. I was happy to strap on an N95 mask for the flight. (I’d gladly wear a neon hazmat suit and ski goggles to keep my family safe.)
We spent a few lovely days outside in the sun, each with our signature drink: a seltzer for me, Diet Coke for my stepdad and, for my mom, “a decaf iced coffee with a lotta cream and two Splendas.”
Every moment felt like borrowed time.
There’s a lot to say about Monday’s decision. It was issued by a highly inexperienced judge rated unqualified by the American Bar Association.
I don’t know when I’ll be able to safely see them again without driving for a day straight. On Monday, a federal judge in Florida struck down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mask mandate on public transportation like airplanes, trains and buses. The Biden administration is reviewing the decision to assess legal options. In the meantime, airlines quickly announced that they were no longer requiring masks; Delta even described Covid as “an ordinary seasonal virus.” Travelers described hearing announcements changing policy when they were boarding or mid-flight.
But this isn’t just about airplanes or my ability to visit elderly parents. Millions of people use public transportation, like subways, buses and commuter trains, to get to their jobs every day. They have no other way to get to work, and they need to put food on the table and a roof over their families’ heads. Many kids use public transit to get to school; patients need to get to medical appointments. In some regions, essentially everyone uses public transportation; in other places, it’s disproportionately used by people who are poor and people of color.
Fortunately, the transit authorities in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area have said they’ll continue to require masks. But other agencies, like New Jersey Transit and Boston's Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, are making masks optional.
There’s a lot to say about Monday’s decision. It was issued by a highly inexperienced judge rated unqualified by the American Bar Association. Research shows that masking yourself alone is insufficient and that universal masking provides the most protection. Monday’s decision will likely lead to increased spread of Covid, prolong the pandemic and cause sickness and long-term disability. With Covid rates on the rise, thousands of people could die as a result.
This situation is the product of a system broken in too many ways to enumerate; the solution will require everything from court reform to ending the Senate filibuster to adequately funding public education.
I’ll leave eloquent expressions of rage to other people, though. I’m Gen X. I’m basically incapable of lingering too long on how the world should be. I move quickly to workarounds and next-best options. It’s either a flaw or a superpower, depending on your point of view.
So where do we go from here?
Providing a few mask-mandatory options doesn’t seem logistically insurmountable.
Cities and states should maintain their own mandatory masking requirements for the public transportation they control, relaxing mandates only when all Covid measures indicate it’s safe. The federal judge’s decision was about the CDC’s powers, not about those of state or local transit authorities. Cities should continue to require masks during transit and in airports, train stations and bus terminals under their control. Such measures will protect travelers, as well as transportation, restaurant, retail, janitorial and other workers.
In regions where such action is highly unlikely, instead of offering only mask-optional service, transportation companies could reject an all-or-nothing paradigm by offering some trips on each route for which wearing masks would be mandatory. By doing so, they could continue to make travel accessible to all, including those with heightened vulnerabilities to Covid and family members who don’t want to endanger them.
Providing a few mask-mandatory options doesn’t seem logistically insurmountable. Airlines could designate certain flights — say, the first flight of the day — as mask-mandatory. Long-distance buses could do the same. This would allow people who prioritize mask-required trips to select that option.
Amtrak has long had a quiet car. Lord help anyone who audibly sighs in that car. (You want to talk cancel culture? Try answering your phone in the quiet car.) Amtrak, commuter trains and subway systems without universal masking could designate easily identifiable cars on each train — like the first and last cars — where masks are mandatory.
Offering some options where masks are mandated would help enable continued accessibility of travel to everyone. People with health conditions and disabilities shouldn’t de facto be shut out of travel or forced to risk their health to conduct their daily lives.
There may also be legal concerns. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects people with disabilities in transportation and requires access for them. Offering only untenable options may be a lawsuit waiting to happen.
There’s a business argument for offering mandatory mask options, since there’s likely to be strong demand for this service. A lot of people are medically vulnerable for one reason or another; they also have families who care about them. Toss in generally cautious and health-minded people, who would simply rather avoid a disease that can cause disability and death. Many people would go out of their way to book safer travel. Recent polls indicate that over half of respondents want mask mandates when they travel. Meeting these needs would be a canny strategic decision.
To be sure, people could still wear N95 masks even on mask-optional trips. But that’s not the same as universal masking. If the spread of invisible airborne particles is too hard to imagine, check out the cartoon illustration of “The Pee Test.” If one guy pees on another, the best outcome for everyone is if both are wearing pants.
Unfortunately, offering one or a few trips per day with masks required wouldn’t eliminate the Covid risk for transportation workers. Because of Monday’s decision, potential workplace exposure for flight attendants, train conductors, bus drivers and more just skyrocketed. Our country’s treatment of people as expendable has been one horrifying constant throughout this whole pandemic. The Supreme Court tanked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate, but perhaps OSHA could take action here in relation to masking requirements.
(This is where I also note the colossal stupidity of creating a situation in which transportation workers get sick if the goal is to continue routine operations of transportation networks. The U.K. found that out quickly enough as travel descended into chaos because too many workers were sick.)
In the meantime, at the very least, companies should strike a middle ground and create an option for passengers who want mask-required travel. It’s the smart and the right thing to do.
If that happens, I’ll be planning my next trip south. At least once more, I want to enjoy our seltzer, Diet Coke and decaf iced coffee. With a lotta cream and two Splendas.