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Transit agencies split on mask requirements in wake of CDC mandate ruling

On Monday, a federal judge in Florida struck down the public transportation mask mandate imposed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But mask requirements can and do exist outside the CDC policy, which was just last week extended to May 3.

Federal and local transit agencies, and individual operators, are interpreting the ruling in different ways. In short, the decision made by Trump-appointed U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle is causing confusion for both transit agencies and passengers. Mizelle’s reasoning detailed in a 59-page ruling focuses on use of the word “sanitation” in the 1944 statute that served as a basis for CDC mandate.

The judge wrote:

“Wearing a mask cleans nothing. At most, it traps virus droplets. But it neither ‘sanitizes’ the person wearing the mask nor ‘sanitizes’ the conveyance.”

Mizelle went on to say that enforcement of the mandate — denial of entry or removal of passengers who fail to comply — was a form of “detention and quarantine” not defined by the law she struck down.

There was immediate divergence between two federal agencies responsible for public transportation: the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Transportation Administration, the former a branch of the Department of Homeland Security and the latter an arm of the Department of Transportation.

The TSA Monday announced they will no longer enforce the mask requirement on public transportation and at transportation hubs. The TSA is primarily tasked with airport security and traveler screening.

Individual airlines can still require passengers to wear masks aboard their planes, though several major airlines swiftly changed policies Monday to make masking optional going forward. People are no longer expected to wear masks inside the Bay Area’s international airports in San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland.

However, the FTA has not dropped mask requirements for passengers aboard public transit vehicles. Citing the FTA’s current stance, the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency, which oversees Muni service, said via Twitter Monday afternoon that masks are still required on Muni buses and subway trains.

The SFMTA statement reads:

“HeadsUp: Earlier today a federal judge struck down the mask mandate for airplanes and public transit. As this issue makes its way through our legal process, the federal policy remains in place. For the time being, as we wait to learn more, masks remain required on #SFMuni.”

The statement added:

“(At the moment), the FTA requires everyone on transit to wear a mask. Even when this changes, masks will be a good option. One-way masking to protect yourself does work—esp. if it’s a surgical mask, N95, KN95, KF94 or similar.”

AC Transit issued a similar statement on social media Monday afternoon, saying:

“Masks are still required on public transit. Remember to have your mask handy when riding. If you don’t have one, masks are onboard the buses so please grab one. Wear them properly by covering both your nose and mouth.”

BART’s messaging on the mask rule lacks the same clarity.

According to a San Francisco Chronicle report, BART police were instructed to stop enforcing the passenger mask order. However, a mask requirement service advisory remains in place on the agency’s website and officials made the following statement in a Tuesday update:

Regarding the Mask Mandate: BART officials are currently touching base with other transit agencies in the Bay Area and looking to see if there is any movement on the local, state, or federal level about a mask mandate for transit. BART hasn’t made an official or final determination if a mask mandate will continue on BART. Once we make an official determination we will communicate it.”

Below is a breakdown of current mask rules for various other transit agencies operating in the Bay Area:

  • Amtrak issued a Monday policy revision that reads: While Amtrak passengers and employees are no longer required to wear masks while on board trains or in stations, masks are welcome and remain an important preventive measure against COVID-19.
  • Caltrain officials relayed in a Twitter post Tuesday that the agency’s “mask policy has not changed,” though they are reviewing the judge’s decision and add that updates are to come.
  • Contra Costa County Connection updated its mask policy around 4:15 p.m. Tuesday afternoon. The agency is no longer requiring passengers to wear masks aboard its buses.
  • A SamTrans representative told SFBay via phone Tuesday afternoon that the mask policy is still being enforced and there is no further statement at this time.
  • Tri-Valley Rapid Monday rescinded their mandatory mask policy for Wheels bus passengers.
  • VTA, out of Santa Clara County, is still requiring that passengers wear masks. Agency officials said via Twitter Tuesday afternoon:

We are getting lots of questions about the mask requirement…and we are ensuring we have the latest information from all levels of government before any changes in our policy are made. We will release more info. as soon as we can. Thank you for your patience.

  • WestCAT, which provides bus service in West Contra Costa County, told SFBay via phone that the mask rules remain unchanged as of Tuesday.

Ride-hailing app service providers Uber and Lyft have both dropped mask requirements for riders and drivers.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that the ruling was “a disappointing decision,” but the administration has been vague about whether it plans to pursue a legal appeal. President Joe Biden said Tuesday as he boarded Air Force One that he has not yet spoken to the CDC.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 4:47 p.m. on April 19 to reflect a change to the Contra Costa County Connection mask policy made after the article was originally published.

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