The Transportation Security Administration will extend its mask mandate for airplanes and other public transportation through mid-April, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention works with federal agencies to revise mask policies, the two agencies announced Thursday.
The requirement will extend at least through April 18 at the CDC’s recommendation and will apply to public transportation and transportation hubs. Under the TSA’s rule, passengers on airplanes, buses and trains and at airports and transit stations must wear masks.
But the relatively short extension, coming as U.S. cases have plummeted from the height of the omicron surge, signaled that the federal government may be preparing to wind down the requirement, at least in some places. The CDC was consulting other federal agencies to determine when masks should be required on public transit, taking into account case counts and the risks of new variants, among other factors.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki suggested that federal scientists would need to incorporate varying risk levels across the country, a strategy the CDC deployed in drafting new recommendations for when Americans could stop wearing masks.
“When you get on an airplane, you travel to different places, right? You’re not just static in one place,” she said Thursday at a news briefing. “If you’re moving from one zone to another and you’re picking people up from one zone to another, it’s a little bit different. And that requires some consultation, which is what they’re going to endeavor to do between now and April.”
The TSA said in a statement Wednesday that it was preparing for a busy spring break travel surge, anticipating that average daily passenger traffic will pass 90% of pre-pandemic levels for the rest of the month.
The relaxation of mask rules in many U.S. states follows new guidance from the CDC late last month that suggested most Americans could stop wearing masks in public and in schools, social distancing and avoiding crowded indoor spaces, so long as they were in areas of the country with lower risk.
While some school districts still require masks, Hawaii on Tuesday became the final state to announce it would drop its universal indoor mask mandate.
Even as cases and hospitalizations have fallen to a fraction of their omicron peaks, the average number of new deaths — more than 1,300 a day — remains high, according to a New York Times database. Many Americans are still at higher risk, including people with weakened immune systems, and have said they feel left behind by the removal of precautions.
Since mask-wearing became widespread, there have been incidents of unruly behavior from resistant passengers, abuse often directed at other travelers and airline staff members, who have been left to enforce the mask-wearing. The agency last year moved to double fines for travelers who refused to wear masks in airports and on commercial airplanes. The Federal Aviation Administration in early 2021 adopted a “zero tolerance” policy for interfering with or assaulting flight attendants.
On Thursday, industry trade group Airlines For America said in a statement that U.S. airlines would keep enforcing the mandate with the TSA and FAA, and were encouraged by recent moves by states to lift mask rules and other policies as new cases decreased.
“We urge the administration to identify a path forward from COVID-era policies — including eliminating mask and pre-departure testing requirements,” the statement added.