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The CDC's mask mandate for public transportation has been reversed

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Well, that didn't take long.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Good morning, America. The major mask reversal...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The federal mask mandate for travelers is over.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: ...As masks come off on planes, trains, airports...

CHANG: By Tuesday morning, less than 24 hours after a federal judge struck down the CDC's mask mandate for public transportation, videos like this one appeared on social media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...That the Transportation Security Administration will no longer enforce the federal mandate requiring masks in all U.S. airports and on foreign aircraft.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

CHANG: That's a crew member on a flight announcing the change to applause.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The nation's largest airlines dropped their mask requirements just hours after a federal judge ruled the CDC had overstepped its legal authority.

CHANG: That judge was appointed by former President Trump. Her decision cleared the way for masks to come off elsewhere too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Rideshare company Uber announcing overnight it is dropping mask mandates for drivers and riders...

CHANG: Airlines and ride-hailing companies seem pretty happy to dispense with the mandates as quickly as possible. After all, the FAA received nearly 6,000 reports of unruly airline passenger incidents last year, an all-time high. And more than 70% of those incidents were caused by mask conflicts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEN PSAKI: So this is obviously a disappointing decision.

CHANG: That was White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday reminding everyone that the mask mandate had been set to expire this week anyway. That was, of course, before the CDC sought to extend the mandate by two weeks in the face of the BA.2 subvariant.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And then tonight, we have breaking news on the administration's next move. And we're joined by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith with the latest. Tam, tell us what's going on.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Well, the Department of Justice says it disagrees with the judge's ruling and says it is ready to appeal the decision if the CDC says that the mask mandate should continue to stay in place for public safety, public health. So this is not an immediate appeal. And as a reminder, the mask mandate for planes and public transportation was set to expire yesterday, but then the CDC said it needed an additional two weeks to study that BA.2 subvariant of omicron that is sending case numbers up to see if this current increase is turning into something more serious. So the judge's ruling then threw out the mandate before that review could take place.

So the Justice Department says that it's important to maintain CDC's authority to protect public health. And they are waiting, though, for CDC to determine if the mandate is really necessary for public health. That's an indication that they want to be on solid legal footing and public health footing because there's risk that an adverse ruling on appeal would set precedent that could seriously limit the ability of CDC to enact public health measures in the future.

SHAPIRO: Right. But in the meantime, where does that leave the administration, given that the mask mandate has basically melted away in the last 24 hours?

KEITH: Yeah, every few minutes we're hearing of some new transit system that's getting rid of mask mandates. You know, it isn't clear how long this CDC review will take. But in the meantime, the White House is encouraging people to wear masks. And on the one airplane where they still have control, Air Force One, the White House did ask everyone today to continue to mask up. President Biden was asked earlier today whether people should continue to wear masks on planes, and he said, quote, "that's up to them."

SHAPIRO: Hmm.

KEITH: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Well, politically, what does this mean for the president?

KEITH: You know, for the administration, there is a concern that letting this precedent stand - letting this decision stand, could set precedent. But there's also concern about making sure that they're on solid ground. You know, the president, the White House, as they have tried to move into the next phase of the pandemic, this phase where we all figure out how to live with the virus, President Biden has taken a lot of heat from progressives in his own party who are concerned that he is putting politics ahead of public health.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, and let's dig into the politics because as we heard, there were videos of people celebrating on planes. To what extent does that actually reflect public opinion? Was the mask mandate that unpopular?

KEITH: Well, like everything with this pandemic, it's polarized. Democrats are overwhelmingly in favor of the mandate continuing. Republicans are overwhelmingly opposed. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll out earlier this month showed 51% - so that's a narrow majority - thought that the mandate should be allowed to expire, while 48% said it should continue.

This also makes the politics for the White House sort of a no-win situation. Liberals are upset that they're not being aggressive enough. Meanwhile, the administration gets no credit from independents and conservatives for lifting the mandate because it came from a judicial ruling.

SHAPIRO: I mean, bottom line, if this appeal does go forward, even so, is there any going back to universal masking?

KEITH: Yeah. Even before this decision, the mask requirement was sort of hanging on by a thread, with many passengers on public transit barely complying. I spoke with Zeke Emanuel, a professor of health care management who is in regular touch with the White House.

ZEKE EMANUEL: It is a problematic time because it does appear that two years is the sort of limit of people's willingness to impose burdens on themselves for public health measures. So I think, you know, we've obviously hit that wall.

KEITH: And it's hard to imagine a scenario where universal masking returns.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Tamara Keith. Thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

CHANG: OK. As we just heard from Tam, the administration is treading pretty carefully here since another court ruling against them could affect the CDC's ability to enact public health measures for years to come. And for more on that possibility and what traveling Americans should do in the meantime to protect themselves right now, let's bring in Selena Simmons-Duffin and Maria Godoy of NPR's Science Desk to talk about both the science and the policy at the center of all of this. Hey to both of you.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: So Maria, I want to start with you because, as we heard earlier, airlines, you know, even in the middle of flights, were making announcements to people saying they no longer had to wear masks. And I'll be getting on a plane this week. I'm just wondering - what is the risk right now of being exposed for those of us who are traveling on public transportation?

GODOY: Well, let's start by talking about air travel because airplanes themselves have really good air filtration systems when they're in flight, but the ventilation isn't so great on those tightly packed tunnels you use to get on the plane. And the same goes for when you're sitting on the tarmac. I've seen aerosols experts post photos on Twitter of their own air travels. They're using carbon dioxide monitors to show just how poor the ventilation can be on a plane just before takeoff. The good news is that once you're in the air, that filtration system is on.

Dr. Edward Nardell is an expert in airborne disease transmission at Harvard. He says the air on airplanes is compartmentalized in such a way that you're really just sharing air with people in the few rows around you, not the whole plane.

EDWARD NARDELL: If you're immediately next to somebody who is highly infectious, your best protection is a mask - and a tight-fitting one at that - rather than depending on the ventilation.

GODOY: In other words, airplane air can be good, but he's going to keep wearing a tight-fitting mask when he travels. That means a respirator mask, like an N95, KN95 or KF94.

CHANG: OK. Well, what about travel on, say, like, buses or ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft?

GODOY: Well, Nardell says research prior to the pandemic found ventilation on buses can be pretty bad in some cases. That's not always true. It depends on the bus. But certainly, crowding doesn't help. Opening windows can help, but that's not always possible on a bus. So he strongly suggests you keep wearing a mask in that situation. As for ride-sharing services, as you mentioned earlier, Uber said today it will no longer require drivers or passengers to mask up on rides.

CHANG: Right. OK, well, you know, one argument among people who wanted this requirement to be gone is that, you know, they were saying, people who are vulnerable or worried can just wear their own mask themselves. Can you just explain for us why that is not equivalent to everyone wearing masks on public transit?

GODOY: Well, look, we know one-way masking is highly protective. But I can't stress this enough - you need to be wearing a respirator. I'm not talking about cloth masks, which really don't do much against omicron. Surgical masks are a step up. But really, if you want to be protected, you need a respirator. Respirators can't completely eliminate the risk of getting infected, but they make a big difference. And you protect yourself further by getting vaccinated and boosted. With omicron, the evidence shows you really need that third shot.

CHANG: Absolutely.

GODOY: But yeah, I mean, protection would be more if everyone were wearing a mask.

CHANG: Well, Selena, I know that you have been talking to some public health and legal experts who are looking at this ruling, and they're saying this ruling's kind of just sort of pretty out there. Why is that?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, as you mentioned, the judge in this case was confirmed and nominated by President Trump. This was all very recent. And she was given a rating of unqualified by the American Bar Association when she was nominated because of, quote, "the short time she has actually practiced law and her lack of meaningful trial experience." So the health law experts I've talked with say her opinion in this case is just very poorly reasoned. Erin Fuse Brown, who teaches law at Georgia State University, told me it reads like one of her first-year law students' final exam.

ERIN FUSE BROWN: It reads like someone who had decided the case and then tried to dress it up as legal reasoning without actually doing the legal reasoning.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So as an example, Fuse Brown told me sanitation is a public health term that broadly means taking steps to prevent the spread of a disease. But in this opinion, Judge Kimball Mizelle interpreted the word sanitation to just mean physically cleaning.

FUSE BROWN: She says, given that sanitation means to clean something, to destroy disease particles, then CDC can't just ask people to wear masks because it doesn't literally destroy the virus to pass it through a mask. It just seemed crazy to me to read the statute that way.

CHANG: So where does all of this leave the CDC in future outbreaks, like the ongoing BA.2?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: In the short term, Fuse Brown told me this really ties the agency's hands. And she says it raises its own questions of who should have power over public health rules.

FUSE BROWN: Even if we're skeptical about agencies, or even about Congress' ability to make good judgments in this time, we certainly do not want these decisions to be in the hands of a single unelected judge.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She says the judge didn't open any doors for CDC to come back and change the mask requirement, she just declared it vacated and unlawful, period.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin and Maria Godoy. Thank you to both of you so much.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.

GODOY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.