Even as major U.S. airlines dropped their mask mandates, public transit systems across the country scrambled to adapt on Tuesday to a federal judge’s ruling, with some making face coverings optional while many others told riders that they must still mask up.
New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and Boston all kept requirements in place, while Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia allowed train and bus passengers to drop their masks, as did the nationwide Amtrak rail system.
In Philadelphia, the decision led to an odd juxtaposition: The city last week reinstated its mask mandate for indoor public spaces, becoming the first major U.S. city to do so this spring. But a transit authority statement late Monday announced: “Effective immediately, masks are not required on SEPTA vehicles and in stations and concourses.”
Massachusetts provided a good example of the hodgepodge of approaches now in place. The Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan International Airport and two smaller airports, lifted its mask requirements after the Monday ruling. But the transit authority that runs buses and subways in the Boston region, and the Steamship Authority, which operates ferries to and from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, kept mandates in place.
Even in places where masks will continue to be required, officials acknowledged that it might only be a matter of time. Chicago’s commuter rail system, Metra, is taking it “day by day,” said Michael Gillis, a system spokesman. For now, train, bus and subway riders in Chicago are still required to wear masks.
The same was true along much of the West Coast.
“There may be an appeal from the Justice Department that could lead to a delay in implementation, or for the decision to be altered or overruled,” Seattle’s King County Metro said on Monday. “In the meantime, Metro’s mask mandate remains in effect.”
Portland’s TriMet agency and the operator of San Francisco’s city bus system, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, made similar announcements.
The patchwork of responses underscored the uncertainty of the current phase of the pandemic. The Omicron subvariant known as BA.2 has reversed a nationwide decline in new cases — a trend that can be seen even with diminishing test data. But it is spreading in a country that is better vaccinated than during previous surges, and so far, an increase in hospitalizations has not followed the rise in infections.
Even in places that have kept mask requirements, enforcement has long been nonexistent. In Atlanta, where a mandate was in place until Tuesday, Aida Smith, 22, said that she had stopped wearing a mask on public transit after she was vaccinated against the coronavirus last year.
“I feel like a lot of other people here did the same thing — got vaccinated and stopped wearing a mask,” she said.
Darren Kettle, the chief executive of Metrolink, a commuter rail system that serves six large Southern California counties, said that he and the system’s general counsel spent most of the day on Monday figuring out what exactly the federal court ruling meant.
But once he got word that the Transportation Security Administration would be lifting its mask requirement, he said, Metrolink decided to follow suit; the federal requirement had served as a baseline in a region where pandemic restrictions have varied county by county.
Mr. Kettle added that for Metrolink, where passengers are more likely to be spread out in train cars, the lifting of the mandate came as something of a relief.
“Not having this in place now gives people peace of mind that at least our conductors aren’t having to enforce something that was very difficult to enforce,” he said.