Why you may still want to carry a face mask, even without the mandate

Morgan Hines
USA TODAY

If you're traveling in the USA this weekend, you may not want to leave your mask at home just yet. 

The past few days proved jarring for travelers as transportation providers quickly pivoted after a federal judge in Florida voided the federal mask mandate Monday. Masks have become optional under most circumstances after two years of the requirement being a standard. 

To add to the murkiness of the situation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday that its order requiring masks on planes and other public transit is still needed, setting in motion a Justice Department appeal of the federal court decision. The appeal does not restore the mandate.

Where does that leave travelers? In most cases, masks are optional on various forms of public transportation, but local authorities still have jurisdiction. That means in some situations, a mask mandate may still be in effect. 

Travelers will face a "completely different" environment in terms of infection risk than they might have anticipated last week, according to Daniel Parker, assistant professor of population health and disease prevention at the University of California, Irvine.

It's best to be prepared whether you A) are required to wear a mask or B) choose to wear a mask.

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Though many airlines, most airports and public transportation options and venues, including Uber and Lyft, dropped mask requirements, there are exceptions. 

In New York City, for example, masks are still required in some airports – including John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia – and on the buses, subways and trains, as well as in taxis (and other "for-hire" vehicles such as Ubers and Lyfts).

The same is true in Los Angeles County, which cited more than 2,100 new cases of COVID while its Public Health Department issued a Health Officer Order on Thursday, noting that masks are still required on public transit, including buses and Ubers, and in indoor transportation hubs like subway stations and airport terminals. L.A. County's order will remain in effect until community transmission of COVID drops to the moderate level, the CDC assesses that masking is no longer necessary within the transportation sector or within 30 days – whichever comes first.

A quick search online to find out the mask mandate status of your intended destination or form of transportation is a prudent step to take before setting out.

What to consider when deciding whether to wear your mask

Now that you have a choice in most travel situations, there are a few things to consider when deciding whether to don your mask or pocket it. 

•Be aware that risk of infection is likely to increase without mask mandates.

Dr. Scott Weisenberg, an infectious diseases specialist and director of the travel medicine program at NYU Langone Health, said the risk of COVID-19 infection is "going to go up" because of the change.

"There’s no way of getting around that we’re less safe without the mask mandates than with," Parker said.

•Consider what risk of infection means for yourself and others.

Weisenberg said that for people who are older, immunocompromised or unvaccinated, the risk of getting COVID-19 and winding up in the hospital is higher.

Regardless of individual risk, Weisenberg recommends everyone wear a mask while traveling.

"Even for people who are young and healthy and are less likely to suffer severe COVID ... they can still transfer to those people around them and be part of (a)  transmission chain ...  infecting somebody who's more vulnerable," he said.

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What to do if you're nervous now that the mandate has lifted

Without the mandate, some travelers may feel more nervous about an upcoming trip. There are things you can do to mitigate risk if you're concerned.

Weisenberg advised wearing a tight-fitting, high-quality mask for as long as possible. 

During travel, passengers are at highest risk of infection in the airport terminal and while boarding planes, where "air circulation isn't going to be optimal," according to Weisenberg. 

On flights, try to be strategic if you take your mask off for eating or drinking.

"Ideally do that when people around you have masks on, so you’re not taking masks off at the same time," Weisenberg said.

He said COVID-19 spreads person to person, and using hand sanitizer may help avoid viruses.

Steps to take before travel if you're immunocompromised

Parker said "there's not a very satisfying answer" in terms of what immunocompromised people can do to make sure they're safe while traveling.

"To be honest, the best (immunocompromised and unvaccinated people, including young children) can do at this point is either postpone travel or get as good a fitting mask as possible, maybe consider double masking," he said.

Weisenberg said that if you are immunocompromised and at risk of getting "severe COVID," you should talk to your health care provider before traveling. 

Immunocompromised travelers need to be "extremely vigilant" about wearing a high-quality mask for the entirety of their travel, he said.

Remember, "whatever the risk was last week, it’s going to be somewhat higher" now that the mask mandate has lifted, Weisenberg said.

Another step to take if you're immunocompromised is to get a booster shot if you haven't had one. Consider getting a second booster shot after discussing the option with your health care provider.

You can still wear your mask, no matter what

Though the mask mandate may no longer be in play, no one is going to stop you from wearing a mask if you want to.

The CDC advises wearing a mask in many public settings.

Even though the CDC is not enforcing its mask order implemented Jan. 29, 2021, the agency "continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings at this time."

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Contributing: Eve Chen, Bailey Schulz, Kevin Johnson, Joey Garrison