Shandy Wykoff said she won’t stop wearing a mask on her daily TRAX rides, even if the federal government decides later this month not to renew the requirement intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 on public transportation.
“I wear a mask everywhere I go,” Wykoff, a certified nursing assistant from Salt Lake City, said. “Personal choice, really. It doesn’t hurt anything to wear it. and if there’s a chance that it’s going to protect me in the long run, I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
Although masks are currently no longer deemed necessary in much of the country under new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines as COVID-19 cases continue to fall from record numbers earlier this year around the country and in Utah, they still must be worn on planes and other public transportation.
That could change on March 18, when a U.S. Transportation Security Administration order requiring masks on planes, trains and buses first put in place more than a year ago is set to expire. It’s not clear whether the federal government will renew the order or let it lapse.
Wykoff said she’s going to stay masked up until COVID-19 becomes more like the common cold.
“Then I would be comfortable,” she said. “I don’t think it’s going to happen that way for a long, long time.”
Already, though, she has noticed more TRAX passengers are skipping masks during her daily commute to work in Salt Lake City and trips to see her daughter in West Valley City. Wykoff, who has battled COVID-19 twice, said she depends on public transportation because she doesn’t have a car.
“I’m surprised more and more, people are wearing them less. It’s really strange,” Wykoff said. “It used to be almost everybody had a mask on. Now, everyday it seems like less and less people are wearing one. I’ve seen bus drivers will sometimes push it, but they just ignore them most of the time.”
Wykoff said “very rarely” has she seen people become hostile when told they must wear a mask on public transportation, but she still stays quiet even though she’s not comfortable around passengers who flout the federal order.
Although there’s a big difference between the CDC’s new, relaxed recommendations on masking and what is still required on public transportation, Utah Transit Authority spokesman Carl Arky said that hasn’t raised additional concerns for the transit system.
“Passengers, for the most part, continue to be respectful and compliant. By and large, it’s become understood that wearing a mask is part of riding public transportation,” Arky said, adding UTA will “maintain the messaging we’ve had throughout the pandemic stating that masks are required.”
The situation is the same at the Salt Lake City International Airport.
“Most passengers are still complying,” airport spokeswoman Nancy Volmer said, adding that so far, front-line people are not seeing that passengers are confused that the mask requirement remains in effect even as most Americans are being told they no longer need to wear a face covering.
“There is signage and messaging throughout the airport reminding passengers to wear their mask unless eating or drinking. Of course, you have to wear a mask to go through security screening or to board an aircraft,” Volmer said. “There always seems to be a handful that have to be reminded of this.”
Last week, Bloomberg reported the nation’s largest flight attendants union expects the order to be extended for a fourth time. Flight attendants have faced a huge increase in the number of unruly passenger incidents in the past year as they attempt to enforce the order.
“We have every expectation that the mask mandate will be extended for the near term,” the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA told the news service in an emailed statement. “The conditions in aviation are the same. Our youngest passengers do not yet have access to the vaccine.”
But the CDC no longer recommends universal masking because of a change in how the agency assesses risk associated with COVID-19. Before, counties with 100 cases of COVID-19 or more per 100,000 people or 10% or more of positive tests were considered to have a high level of transmission — just about everywhere.
Now, the CDC has raised the threshold to a weekly average of 200 new cases per 100,000 people and added hospitalizations and hospital beds filled to determine risk for transmission. That puts much of the nation in a low or medium level, where masks are either not recommended or advised only for those already at increased risk.
No counties in Utah are currently at the high transmission level, where the CDC continues to say masks should be worn in indoor public settings, including schools. Most Utah counties, including Salt Lake, are at the medium transmission level, according to the latest CDC data published Thursday.
Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, labeled the new guidelines “decent.”
“They do incorporate new cases as one of the variables, along with COVID-19 admissions and inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients to determine the three community levels,” Kim said, a combination of early and lagging indicators of the virus’ spread.
But he noted COVID-19 vaccination rates are still not being considered. Just over 61% of all Utahns have gotten the initial shots against the virus, compared to about 65% nationwide. But only about 27% of all Utahns also have received a booster dose, compared to almost 44% of all Americans.
Correction: A previous version misspelled Shandy Wykoff’s last name as Wycoff.