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Crowds of masked and unmasked people broke through the security line at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Tuesday, April 19, 2022 where the airport released a statement Tuesday morning saying masks are now “optional for employees, passengers and visitors” at the airport. “Although a mask mandate is no longer enforced, employees, passengers and visitors are reminded that masks continue to provide a level of protection against the COVID virus,” the airport said. (John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

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A federal judge’s ruling has ended — at least for now — the requirement for people to wear masks on planes and public transit, and there’s a lot of confusion about the new world of post-mask travel.

A single Florida judge’s ruling overturned 14 months of government insistence that travelers wear masks to reduce transmission of COVID-19. Within hours, all major US airlines and many airports announced — sometimes to passengers in the middle of flights — that travelers could remove their masks.

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WHAT EXACTLY WAS THE DECISION?

In a 59-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa, Florida, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exceeded its authority in issuing the initial health order that Transportation Security Administration had used to impose the mask mandate. She said the CDC did not follow proper rulemaking procedures.

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WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Once the TSA said it would no longer enforce the rule, airlines, airports, transit systems and ride-sharing services were free to decide for themselves whether or not to require masks. United, Delta, American, Southwest, Alaska, JetBlue and other airlines have all made masks voluntary.

In the field, however, requirements may vary from place to place. New York City’s transit system planned to keep its mask requirement in place. In San Francisco, the regional commuter rail system known as BART has made masks voluntary, but the city’s transportation authority has not.

The transit agency serving Philadelphia and its suburbs said masks will no longer be required on subways, buses and trains or in train stations, even if the city has a mask mandate.

Uber and Lyft said they would not require passengers to wear masks.

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IS IT SAFE TO TRAVEL NOW?

Air filtration on planes is generally excellent, but boarding and exiting a plane can bring people closer together in poorly ventilated spaces, said Dr. Babak Javid, a medical researcher at the University of California in San Francisco. The risk on other forms of transport varies.

Dr David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said planes can carry the virus from place to place, but we should focus more on large indoor events. such as concerts and sporting events – even big weddings – where people get together and talk, shout and sing.

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DO I ALWAYS WEAR A MASK ON PLANES?

The CDC continues to recommend that people mask up indoors when traveling.

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DO MASKS WORK IF NOBODY ELSE IS WEARING ONE?

Yes, masks still offer some protection against COVID-19, but they work best if others wear them too.

High-quality masks work in two ways, said Carl Bergstrom, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington who studies emerging infectious diseases: they protect the wearer by limiting the number of infectious particles inhaled, and they protect others by limiting exhaled particles if the wearer is infected.

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WILL I STAND OUT?

Probably not. Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian, who favored scrapping the rule, said before the judge’s order he expected to see a “surprising number” of passengers and airline employees airlines wear masks even after warrant expiry.

“I can choose to wear a mask from time to time,” he said.

Still, tension among passengers over mask-wearing could continue, said Eileen Ogintz, who writes about family travel and advises parents of young children who cannot be vaccinated to continue masking.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you got dirty looks or nasty comments” from unmasked passengers, she said. “It’s a conversation to have with the kids ahead of time – why you wear masks.”

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CAN I GET A REFUND IF I DON’T WANT TO FLY NOW?

No, unless the airline cancels your flight.

However, if you call the airline and explain why you’re not comfortable traveling without a mandatory mask, most will let you change flights for free or give you a credit you can use later, Scott Keyes said. , founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. travel website.

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WILL THE LIFTING OF THE BAN AFFECT INTERNATIONAL FLIGHTS?

When traveling between two countries, expect your airline to follow the rules of the more restrictive country. Passengers traveling to Canada, for example, will be required to don masks at some point during the flight, but it’s unclear exactly whether that means when crossing Canadian airspace or at another time.

Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst for Atmosphere Research Group, said there may be international airlines that will still require masks even on flights to and from the United States.

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WILL THIS MAKE MORE PEOPLE READY TO FLY?

Industry officials do not expect this. They say there might be a small number of people who start flying now because they don’t have to wear a mask, but that will be offset by a few people who decide not to fly if others aren’t. not masked.

Although the airline industry has pushed to kill the mandate – after originally backing it – airlines do not expect the rule’s disappearance to affect revenue. They are far more interested in seeing the United States repeal another pandemic-era rule: the requirement that people test for viruses within a day of flying to the United States.

A Biden administration official said Tuesday that no changes are planned to the pre-departure testing requirement.

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WHEN DID THE UNITED STATES REQUIRE MASKS?

The mask’s mandate for transport began in February 2021, shortly after President Joe Biden took office, and has been extended several times. Last week, the CDC extended it again until May 3. The CDC said the extra time was needed to study the BA.2 omicron subvariant, which is now responsible for the vast majority of cases in the United States.

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HOW CAN A SINGLE JUDGE HAVE SO MUCH POWER?

Usually, a federal judge’s rulings only affect those involved in a case or a limited geographic area. But judges can also issue so-called nationwide or universal injunctions that apply across the country, and this is happening more often – a practice that has drawn criticism from conservative members of the US Supreme Court.

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WHO IS JUDGE KATHRYN KIMBALL MIZELLE?

Mizelle, 35, was nominated in 2020 by former President Donald Trump and confirmed in a party vote in the Senate, which was then controlled by Republicans, after Trump lost his re-election bid. She is Trump’s youngest appointee to the federal bench, and the American Bar Association had called her “unqualified” in part because she had only eight years of experience practicing law.

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WILL THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION RESPOND?

The White House acknowledged that due to Mizelle’s order, the mask mandate “is not in effect at this time.” The administration could appeal the decision; it was not said.

While the mask ban was popular at first, support has dwindled over time, according to public opinion polls. As state and local mask rules have been scrapped and Americans have grown accustomed to going naked, the transportation mandate has drawn fire from Republican politicians and some Senate Democrats who face tough fights over re-election.

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IS THE CALENDAR RIGHT?

New reported cases of COVID-19 in the United States are relatively low compared to the past two years, but have been increasing lately and are likely undercounted. Hospitalizations are almost stable and deaths continue to decline.

Dowdy, the Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, said it was reasonable to consider scrapping the mask mandate on travel given the lull in serious illness.

“It would just be nice to do it when the cases are going down rather than up,” he said, “and the decision is being made by people trained in public health rather than law and politics. “.

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WHAT IF COVID CASES INCREASE?

A further rise in cases might not be enough to revive the mask rule, but it could disrupt travel in other ways. US airlines canceled thousands of flights in late December and early January, largely because so many employees were sick with omicron.

“Imagine what would happen if a critical mass of Southwest Airlines pilots got sick and couldn’t fly this summer?” said Harteveldt, the travel analyst. “Whether it’s Southwest or any airline, it could be very disruptive to summer travel.”

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Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson in Washington State and Jessica Gresko and Zeke Miller in Washington, DC, contributed to this report.