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The decision by a U.S. District judge in Florida striking down the federal mask mandate for transportation settings, and the U.S. Department of Justice move to challenge that ruling, hinges on authority and whether the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have it in this case. It’s a question that rightly belongs in the courts, with more answers presumably to follow in the appeals process.
What isn’t in question here is whether a relatively new and potentially deadly virus is still circulating among the population at concerning levels ( it is), and whether masks can help limit that spread ( they can). Even Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle basically acknowledged as much in her ruling against the mask mandate.
“The Court accepts the CDC’s policy determination that requiring masks will limit COVID-19 transmission and will thus decrease the serious illness and death that COVID-19 occasions,” Mizelle wrote.
The ruling isn’t a reason to party like it’s 1999. It is somewhat puzzling to see people celebrate the end of this mandate mid-flight (and still mid-pandemic) like they are headed to Disney World after winning the Super Bowl. It is also discouraging to see people make comments that ultimately undermine the legitimacy of the judiciary just because they disagree with this one ruling.
Whether they are compelled to wear masks or not, we hope people realize that the risks of COVID-19 remain very real, as does the role masks can play in helping to lower the risks of transmission — particularly in crowded, indoor settings, like public transportation and its hubs.
Despite what you may have heard on social media, there is a growing pile of research and evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of masks as a mitigation tool against COVID-19. They aren’t foolproof and they aren’t armor, but as a public health measure, masks work. And some, like surgical masks and respirator masks, can work better than others.
A California report posted in February and highlighted by the CDC found that consistent mask use, especially those with higher filtration capacity, was associated with lower odds of testing positive for COVID-19.
“During February–December 2021, using a face mask or respirator in indoor public settings was associated with lower odds of acquiring SARS-CoV-2 infection, with protection being highest among those who reported wearing a face mask or respirator all of the time,” the study authors, a group of California university researchers and public health officials, wrote. “Although consistent use of any face mask or respirator indoors was protective, the adjusted odds of infection were lowest among persons who reported typically wearing an N95/KN95 respirator, followed by wearing a surgical mask. These data from real-world settings reinforce the importance of consistently wearing face masks or respirators to reduce the risk of acquisition of SARS-CoV-2 infection among the general public in indoor community settings.”
Maybe we’re missing something, but wearing a mask in crowded indoor settings has never seemed like that big of an ask to us. We can certainly understand a flight attendant or any frontline worker wanting to take a mask off after multiple years behind one. We can understand how many students and their parents wanted the same. We can understand how mask wearing could contribute to someone’s anxiety, as was argued by plaintiffs in the transportation mandate court case.
With the recent ruling striking that mandate down, we can also understand how people with underlying health conditions — and thus increased risk of developing serious illness from COVID-19 — might feel more anxious about using public transportation or traveling. We can understand how people with family members who are immunocompromised, or older family members, might feel the same. We can understand how parents of children under the age of 5, who still aren’t able to receive any of the COVID-19 vaccines, are looking around wondering if they’ve been forgotten.
With all of these understandings, we’re left with this conclusion: Mask wearing shouldn’t disappear along with mask mandates, especially in transportation settings. Not yet.
People using public transportation or traveling often are doing so because they need to, not just because they want to. Taking a bus to work isn’t like going to a concert or a bar; it can be less of a choice and more a necessity. You might be totally fine being on a plane, train or automobile without a mask, but the person next to you might not be, for a number of possible reasons. They might even be wearing a mask to help protect you.
As with the entirety of the pandemic, this is another important moment to maintain compassion for others, and to realize that people are living through situations that you can’t always see.