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CDC tacks 2 more weeks onto mask mandate for public transit

Authorities attributed the precautionary extension to the spread of Omicron subvariant BA.2

COVID-19 control measures have largely relaxed throughout the U.S. alongside a drop in cases in recent months, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday it will extend its face mask requirement on public transit for an additional 15 days.

The mandate, which was set to expire on Monday, makes masking a must for patrons of U.S. airports, planes, trains and buses until Tuesday, May 3. As of last week, the CDC says the U.S. was seeing around 26,000 COVID-19 cases per week, a 4.9% increase from the week prior. The agency has estimated that more than 85% of new U.S. cases are BA.2, a subvariant of the omicron mutation of the novel coronavirus.

The Transportation Security Administration is in charge of enforcing the rule, and will likewise extend its security measures for the next two weeks.

“In order to assess the potential impact the rise of cases has on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and health care system capacity, the CDC Order will remain in place at this time,” the TSA said in a statement.

The rule has seen numerous extensions over its 14-months existence but was originally set to expire in May 2021. Put in place by an executive order issued by President Joe Biden upon assuming office, the mandate allows the TSA to issues fines anywhere from $500 to $3,000 to passengers who refuse to mask up. It was last extended in March for one month.

Many states are now pushing back on the order. Two weeks earlier, a coalition of 21 states — in other words, nearly half the nation’s attorneys general — filed a suit challenging the continued implementation of the public transportation mask mandate.

Led by Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, the group asked a federal court in Tampa to halt the CDC’S requirement that people wear masks while riding on public transportation and in hubs like airports. The 31-page complaint argues that the mandate violates the Administrative Procedures Act by not following notice and comment requirements and failing to consider “lesser alternatives.”

Airline and the hospitality industry leaders, too, have been lobbying the Biden administration to nix both the mask mandate and the requirement to have a COVID-19 test before returning to the United States from other countries.

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Airlines for America, a group that speaks for the U.S. Travel Association; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and the American Hotel and Lodging Association sent an April 8 letter to White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha, arguing that the mandates were hurting the U.S. economy.

“While the public health benefits of these policies have greatly diminished, the economic costs associated with maintaining these measures are significant,” the letter states.

It also argued in a letter sent to the White House in March that it makes no sense to mask in the air when people are allowed to mix freely on the ground “in crowded restaurants, schools and at sporting events without masks.”

“An airplane cabin is one of the safest indoor environments due to the combination of highly filtered air and constant air flow coupled with the downward direction of the air,” the letter notes.

Joining Florida in the suit over the mask mandate are the attorneys general of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina. Utah, Virginia and West Virginia. All are Republicans.

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The Transportation Security Administration is in charge of enforcing the rule, and will likewise extend its security measures for the next two weeks.

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