California strongly recommends transit masking despite federal changes

Passengers make their way through Los Angeles International Airport
Passengers make their way through American Airlines Terminal Four at Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

In guidance updated Wednesday, California health officials strongly recommended that people mask up when using public transit, even though it’s no longer required.

Citing the continued risk of coronavirus transmission, state health officials are still strongly recommending Californians mask up when using public transit, even though they’re no longer required to do so.

The updated guidance released Wednesday reflects the new masking landscape forged by this week’s court ruling striking down a federal face-covering order for public transportation systems such as buses, trains and airplanes.

But it’s also the latest example of the California Department of Public Health continuing to tout the benefits of masking, even while relaxing its own requirements. The department still, for instance, urges residents to wear face coverings in indoor public settings and businesses, despite lifting that mandate weeks ago.

This recommended-but-not-required stance illustrates the current state of COVID-19 in California, where infections have crept back up but the number of people falling seriously ill with or dying from the disease are at some of their lowest levels.

Conditions such as these, some officials and experts say, merit the relaxation of certain public health interventions, even though they continue to offer tangible benefits.

Dr. Tomás Aragón, the state public health officer and director of the California Department of Public Health, said that “masks, along with vaccines, are an effective and important layer of protection against COVID-19.”

“Going forward, California will strongly recommend masks on all public transportation and in transit hubs, including bus and train stations, ferry terminals and airports,” he continued in a statement to The Times. “These crowded settings should be considered high risk and may often not have adequate ventilation.”

California, Aragón added, continues “to monitor federal action on this issue and will announce any additional changes to state policies as needed.”

Santa Cruz County’s METRO transit agency Tuesday joined other agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area in dropping its mask requirements, though the agencies still strongly recommend wearing face coverings.

The board governing the BART commuter rail system, however, will consider reinstating a mask mandate at a meeting next Thursday.

“COVID cases are rising again, and we must keep riders safe, especially folks who are immunocompromised or who are under 5 and not yet eligible to get vaccinated,” tweeted BART board President Rebecca Saltzman.

Los Angeles County health officials also are urging travelers to keep their masks on for now.

“Masks continue to be one of the most effective ways to prevent spread, with respirators [N95, KN95, KF94] or medical grade masks providing better protection than cloth masks,” the county Department of Public Health said in a statement. “Anyone traveling or planning to travel should think about their personal risk and the risk of others they will be around and consider getting vaccinated or boosted, taking a COVID-19 test before and after traveling, washing their hands often and wearing a high-quality mask when in indoor shared spaces.”

Coronavirus cases are rising nationally, up from 27,000 to 41,000 cases a day over the last two weeks. New daily coronavirus-positive hospitalizations nationally are still among the lowest levels since recordkeeping began but are starting to increase and are up 7% over the prior week.

Scientists are closely watching the latest highly contagious Omicron subvariant, BA.2.12.1, which is believed to be 25% more contagious than its parent subvariant, BA.2. The newest subvariant already accounts for more than half the new coronavirus cases in New York and New Jersey.

It remains unclear whether the latest increase will be modest and end up being a blip, or if it’s the start of something more troublesome that could potentially risk putting hospitals under strain.

The long-running transit mask mandate was effectively consigned to the cutting-room floor Monday, following an order from a U.S. district judge in Florida.

Immediately following the ruling, the Transportation Security Administration said it no longer would enforce the mask rule, and many airlines, transit systems and communal commuting companies such as Uber and Lyft moved to quickly lift such requirements for passengers.

However, the legal wrangling appears not to be over. Acting on a request from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Justice Department moved to appeal the ruling Wednesday.

“It is CDC’s continuing assessment that at this time an order requiring masking in the indoor transportation corridor remains necessary for the public health,” the agency said in a statement. “CDC will continue to monitor public health conditions to determine whether such an order remains necessary. CDC believes this is a lawful order, well within CDC’s legal authority to protect public health.”

Prior to the ruling, the CDC had extended the mask mandate until May 3. As it stands now, the agency “continues to recommend that people wear masks in all indoor public transportation settings.”

“As we have said before, wearing masks is most beneficial in crowded or poorly ventilated locations, such as the transportation corridor,” the statement continued. “When people wear a well-fitting mask or respirator over their nose and mouth in indoor travel or public transportation settings, they protect themselves and those around them, including those who are immunocompromised or not yet vaccine-eligible, and help keep travel and public transportation safer for everyone.”

While cheered in certain circles, the mask order’s sudden expiration sparked concern from some experts who didn’t support the timing or the fact that the decision was made by a judge rather than public health officials.

The absence of the mask order also presents additional challenges for many medically vulnerable people and their families — who are now left worrying about whether to go through with plane trips or how to navigate other public transportation options.

“We have fought so hard for the right to exist in our community, and now to have these mask mandates fall, which will make it even harder for us to do so, is just infuriating,” said Maria Town, president and CEO of the American Assn. of People With Disabilities.

Times staff writer Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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