Even though a federal court has struck down the nationwide mask mandate on planes, trains and buses, Utahns may still want to mask up when they travel, health experts said.
“It’s a personal decision based on individual circumstances,” said Dr. Angela Dunn, head of the Salt Lake County Health Department. “It’s a good idea in crowded settings when you are there for a long time, particularly for people who are not up-to-date on vaccine or who have underlying conditions (or care for those who do).”
Dunn also pointed out the omicron subvariant — and its spinoffs — are driving up cases on the East Coast. There, a number of high-profile people have tested positive for COVID-19 recently, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and New York City Mayor Eric Adams, while Philadelphia has reinstated a mask mandate due to rising cases.
“BA.2 is showing increasing spread in eastern parts of our country and people on airplanes are from all over, so it’s important to understand there is still risk for some people,” said Dunn, who served as state epidemiologist during much of the pandemic.
The latest versions of the so-called “stealth omicron,” blamed for a spike in New York’s cases, have already been identified in Utah. Dr. Brandon Webb, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician, predicted Utah should start seeing a swell in COVID-19 cases this week.
The uptick in cases in some parts of the country is enough reason to keep wearing a mask, said Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.
“It’s extremely close quarters, whether it’s a bus, train or plane,” Kim said. “The airlines claim that they have excellent ventilation systems and they do. But given how transmissible (COVID-19 is), especially with omicron, and how close you’re sitting to your fellow passengers, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to keep wearing masks.”
Even though people may be ready to ditch masks when they’re on the move, he warned, “chances are, someone on that plane or someone on that bus is shedding virus and wearing a mask is going to be helpful. And then hopefully, people who are showing symptoms, they’ll continue to wear masks so that they can minimize the risk.”
The professor said he was frustrated that it was a federal judge in Florida who ended the mandate, not U.S. public health authorities. The Biden administration indicated late Tuesday the ruling may be challenged if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decides the extension is necessary for public health.
The mandate had been set to end Monday, but had been extended another two weeks. Kim said the extra time would have been helpful in slowing the spread of the virus from the East Coast. “Any little bit helps,” he said, adding that the decision “hamstrings” public health efforts to react quickly to a changing situation.
The Utah Department of Health had little to say when asked for advice on when Utahns should consider wearing a mask on public transportation.
“We recommend people use the CDC Community Levels and follow those recommendations for masking,” state health department spokeswoman Jenny Johnson said, referring to the federal agency’s revised measure of risk for the virus by county. Universal masking is only recommended now by the CDC when the risk is high.
Currently, just over 5% of counties nationwide are considered at medium risk and less than 1% at high, based on case counts and hospitalizations, while in more than 94% of the nation, including all of Utah, the risk is low. Utah adopted the CDC levels as part of Gov. Spencer Cox’s new “steady state” response to COVID-19.
The governor’s plan to treat the virus more like the flu or other deadly disease with limited outbreaks took effect April 1. Most COVID-19 testing and treatments have been turned over to private providers, and it’s largely up to Utahns to determine what, if any, precautions they should be taking to protect themselves.
The latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found that almost three-quarters of Utahns aren’t worried about getting COVID-19, even though they remain split over how long it will take for their lives to return to normal, with 43% saying it will take a year or more.
When it comes to travel, though, Utahns are already making up for lost time.
The federal requirement for masks on airplanes and other public transportation didn’t stop Utahns from eagerly traveling again, according to Brian Hollien, co-chair of the board for the region’s largest travel agency, Morris Columbus Travel, especially within the United States as well as to Mexico and the Caribbean.
With the industry dealing with the public’s pent-up demand to get away since the end of the omicron surge that sent cases skyrocketing to record levels in Utah earlier this year, he said it’s hard to see how lifting the mask mandate could have a significant impact.
“We’ve gone from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. It is so busy,” Hollien said, a transition from almost no business during much of the pandemic “to overwhelming business as of late” as customers rush to catch up on the travel they’ve missed over the past two years.
The federal court decision allowing travelers on airplanes and other public transportation to go maskless may not “have much of an effect at all, to be honest. It will only have a positive effect. But I don’t think it will be significant,” Hollien said, adding most would-be travelers won’t have any second thoughts about venturing out.
And while there may be a few people who will be uncomfortable traveling without the mandate in place, he said “the demand is exceeding the supply” so even if there are some who are more hesitant, “it’s certainly not having an impact at all.”