Metro train in Washington, D.C.
Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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It’s been a minute since Metro triggered this level of anxiety in its customers. Following a federal judge’s ruling this week, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority dropped its mask mandate on Monday night. Virginia and Maryland public transportation agencies also made masking optional. And major airlines and rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft, which lifted mask mandates yesterday and changed their tune on COVID protections, are also facing some blowback.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, a Trump appointee in Florida, struck down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mask mandate for planes, trains, and other modes of public transportation. Her 59-page ruling claimed that the CDC had exceeded its purview and failed to follow proper rulemaking protocols when the federal public health agency instated the U.S. mask requirement for travelers. The Biden administration has said it intends to appeal the ruling if health officials say a mandate is still necessary, and for now the CDC is still recommending people wear masks on indoor public transit.

WMATA’s change of course comes as positive case numbers continue to tick up in the District and surrounding areas. WMATA General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said in a statement that Metro’s mask mandate was based on federal guidance and that the agency “will continue to monitor this situation as it unfolds,” the Post reports

“I’m shocked at the dropping of mask mandates locally just when cases are surging in the DMV,” D.C. child advocate Marie Cohen told City Paper via email. “I can’t understand why these restrictions always seem to be lifted just at the beginning of a surge. It’s hard to understand.”

Cohen worries about immunocompromised residents, those too young to be vaccinated, and the unknown number of residents who may develop long COVID symptoms. She pointed out that even folks who are relatively healthy, fully vaccinated, and doubly boosted can develop flu-like symptoms with a COVID infection.

Cohen, a former policy analyst, says that before some airlines reacted to the judge’s ruling, she was excited about attending a wedding in Kansas this Friday. Now she’s “petrified.”

“Is it so hard to wear a mask on mass transit?” Cohen says.

While some online reactions to WMATA’s decision reflect concerns about the potential dangers of crowded trains and buses full of unmasked riders, others breathed a sigh of relief. 

A September 2020 study that found no correlation between the use of public transit in New York City and the spread of COVID-19 was predicated on riders wearing masks and proper ventilation. A similar, more comprehensive study published earlier this month looked at national data from Jan. 22 to May 1, 2020, before the federal mask mandate and widespread social distancing was in place. Authors found a potential link between the use of public transit without COVID protections and early COVID transmission. New York City and San Francisco will keep their mask mandates in place for now.

“I guess our public officials don’t care if they get COVID, but I and the people I know don’t feel that way,” Cohen says. “It seems that [many] don’t care about case numbers any more—just hospitalizations and deaths.” 

Ambar Castillo (tips?

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated with information about two studies on the correlation between the use of public transit and the spread of COVID.

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