'A bit of whiplash': Public transit riders encounter patchwork of mask rules across US

NEW YORK – A day after a federal judge voided the nationwide mask mandate on public transportation, passengers encountered a patchwork of rules as some transit agencies and ground transportation companies were left to decide their own policies. 

At Moynihan Train Hall, where Amtrak and the Long Island Rail Road operate, many travelers were without masks Tuesday after Amtrak lifted its own mandate. Robyn Baun, who was returning to Buffalo, said the news left her uneasy.

“I was feeling a bit of whiplash," Baun told USA TODAY. “The pandemic isn’t over, and when mandates are lifted, cases tend to rise. So knowing the mandate safety net could be lifted mid-trip was disorienting."

Although masks are still required on public transit in New York City, a handful of passengers ditched them on subway trains Tuesday morning. Adel Lami, who was riding the Q train headed to 34th Street Herald Square, said wearing a mask "should be a personal choice." 

"Because I’m vaccinated three shots, I don’t feel the need for a mask," said Lami, a dancer who lives on the Upper East Side. 

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Ange Heimowitz and Robyn Baun said the priority is to wear masks for others as they headed to Buffalo on Amtrak Tuesday afternoon.

New York City’s public transit system said it plans to keep its mask requirement in place on buses, subway trains and two commuter rail lines. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority follows a directive from the state Department of Health, MTA spokesperson Tim Minton said.

The MTA is one of many public transit agencies and other ground transportation companies, such as Uber and Lyft, grappling with the fallout from the judge's order Monday that canceled the federal mandate.

John Costa, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union International, the largest labor union representing transit and allied workers in the USA and Canada, urged members and riders to remain "calm amidst the uncertainty and confusion."

The federal mask mandate, implemented in January 2021, was set to expire Monday, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week it would extend it for 15 days. 

Then on Monday, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa voided the mandate, saying the rule exceeded the CDC's authority and the agency failed to justify the order and didn't follow proper rulemaking procedures. 

Not long after, the Transportation Security Administration announced it would no longer enforce the policy, which applied to airplanes, airports, taxis and other mass transit. A Biden administration official said federal agencies are reviewing the decision and assessing potential next steps.

Tuesday evening, the Department of Justice left open the door to appeal the decision if the CDC deems it a public health concern.

Most major airlines dropped their mask mandates following the judge's ruling. They had lobbied for months to kill the requirement, citing air filters they said make transmission of COVID-19 highly unlikely during a flight.

Uber and Lyft also lifted mask requirements.

Ride-share passengers have largely refused to wear masks, and the ruling will make it more difficult for drivers who want riders to wear face coverings, said Nicole Morre, a member of Rideshare Drivers United, an advocacy group of more than 20,000 drivers in California.

“It's extremely concerning to us,” she said. “No driver has said to me in the past 2½ years, ‘I just wish I could take my mask off.’”

The policy change won't apply in New York City, where ride-hailing services are regulated by the NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission, which requires masks to be worn in all yellow taxis and app-based ride-share vehicles.

Mask requirements on transit varied from place to place.

NJ Transit, which operates buses and trains connecting stops in New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia, will no longer enforce its mask mandate, according to its website.

“Feel free to burn them at will,” a New Jersey conductor said, prompting light laughter from passengers boarding a commuter train Tuesday. “Hopefully, this is the end of it.”

Transit authorities in Philadelphia announced a similar move, one week after the city announced it would reinstate a mask mandate amid a 50% increase in reported COVID-19 cases.

Other major cities, including Chicago, Portland and Seattle, will keep their mask mandates in place.

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"If the CTA’s policy changes, we will notify customers," the Chicago Transit Authority said in a statement to USA TODAY. "We ask that customers continue to follow the mask requirement and be considerate of other riders and employees."

Riders on San Francisco's network of buses, light rail trains, historic streetcars and cable cars will be required to wear masks, the city's transportation agency said on Twitter, noting that even when requirements change, "masks will be a good option."

Matthew Brewster keeps his mask on as he waits for a train to Washington, even though Amtrak lifted its mandate.

Riders in Atlanta and the nation's capital, as well as smaller cities such as Louisville, Kentucky, and Kansas City, Missouri, will be able to choose whether to wear a face covering. 

Matthew Brewster, from Washington Heights, who wore a mask while waiting for an Amtrak train, said lifting the mandate made him "a little uncomfortable."

"Everybody always makes these decision to lift bans and mandates too soon," he told USA TODAY. “Cases are rising in certain parts of the country like Philadelphia, so I kind of question the logic of ‘returning to normal.’”

In Washington, masks are optional for riders and employees on trains and buses, according to a statement released Monday.

“Our mask mandate has been based on federal guidance,” said Paul Wiedefeld, general manager and CEO of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. “We will continue to monitor this situation as it unfolds, but masks will be optional on Metro property until further notice.”  

Victoria Woods, who was returning to Washington after a day of shopping in New York City, said she was relieved to hear the mandate had been lifted. Woods said she might wear a mask on and off during her trip – but wearing it for three hours straight could be annoying. 

“While I do feel like I will still wear my mask from time to time, it’s nice to breath fresh air and not my own hot air,” she said. 

Contributing:Bailey Schulz and Michael Collins, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

Contact Breaking News Reporter N'dea Yancey-Bragg at nyanceybra@gannett.com or follow her on Twitter @NdeaYanceyBragg