(The Hill) — The Biden administration is under increasing pressure to lift its transportation mask mandate, set to run until April 18, as officials weigh the risks of the latest omicron subvariant against rising frustrations among states and industry executives.
“We hear from our operators all over the country who are saying that customers are choosing not to get on the bus to commute, not to get on the bus to take a trip between two cities, or not to take a tour or charter someplace because of the mask requirements,” Peter Pantuso, president and CEO of American Bus Association (ABA), told The Hill.
The head of the motorcoach and group tour association was among the transportation executives who wrote to President Biden last month urging for the federal mask mandate to be dropped.
Pantuso told The Hill that the industry has been struggling amid the pandemic, and its problems have been compounded by rising oil prices in response to the United States’ decision to bar Russian energy imports.
“We have been hit, and we continue to struggle. We lost upwards of 40 percent of the companies in our industry through the pandemic, and we continue to lose companies every day,” he told The Hill. “So anything that we can do to help that recovery, even, you know, albeit lifting the masks and getting more people back on the bus, is absolutely critical.”
The Airlines for America’s board of directors, which includes executives from United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines, also wrote a letter to Biden, explaining that they had cooperated with COVID-19 protocols and “leaned into the science at every turn.”
“However, much has changed since these measures were imposed and they no longer make sense in the current public health context,” they wrote in the letter on March 23, citing declining death and hospitalization rates.
Among the transportation COVID-19 protocols they urged to be dropped, they argued that the masking requirement should be nixed because it did not make sense to require masking on airplanes and not in other congregate settings like restaurants or sporting events.
“It is critical to recognize that the burden of enforcing both the mask and pre-departure testing requirements has fallen on our employees for two years now,” they added. “This is not a function they are trained to perform and subjects them to daily challenges by frustrated customers. This in turn takes a toll on their own well-being.”
In addition to industry calls, 21 states filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration to stop the federal mask mandate from being enforced.
“President Biden’s shortsighted, heavy-handed and unlawful travel policies are frustrating travelers and causing chaos on public transportation,” Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody (R) said in a statement upon the announcement of the lawsuit, which Florida is leading.
“It’s long past time to alleviate some of the pressure on travelers and those working in the travel industry by immediately ending Biden’s unlawful public transportation mandates.”
The federal mask mandate for all transportation networks — such as planes and trains — first initiated right after Biden came into office, was most recently extended by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) last month until April 18.
An administration official told The Hill at the time that a CDC recommendation was the basis for the one-month extension.
“During that time, CDC will work with government agencies to help inform a revised policy framework for when, and under what circumstances, masks should be required in the public transportation corridor,” the official added.
That development came after the CDC significantly eased its masking guidance after its metrics better accounted for hospital admissions and hospitalizations.
But health officials are monitoring the effects of the omicron subvariant, BA.2 on the public, a new strain that may have an effect on the administration’s next move on the mask mandate.
Lawrence Gostin, a university professor at Georgetown University, public health expert and contributor to The Hill, says the BA. 2 strain is more transmissible than the original omicron strain.
“…BA. 2 seems to be a little bit less pathogenic than alpha or delta, but still, with a lot of cases could be sending a lot of people to the hospital, primarily unvaccinated and elderly people,” he said.
Still, Gostin said that he expected that the Biden administration would not renew its recommendation to extend the transportation mask mandate. He said that he has it “on fairly good authority” that unless the U.S. saw an influx of infections related to BA. 2, “I would fully expect them to go to a mask optional policy.”
He acknowledged there is “enormous pressure” both publicly and politically on the administration to lift it, and he later added, “I think that the administration would lose the confidence of the American public if it extended it longer unless they were … a real resurgent pandemic in the United States in mid-to late-April.”
A senior government official told The Hill that transportation requirements are predicated by CDC guidance and COVID task force guidance. The CDC did not return multiple requests for comment.
During a press briefing earlier this week, White House communications director Kate Bedingfield suggested that officials could have an upcoming announcement on the matter after she was asked about possible new CDC guidance in light of the multi-state lawsuit.
“I will say these are conversations that are underway. And certainly, when we have news to make on this, we’ll come back to you,” Bedingfield told reporters.
Tom Frieden, former CDC director who served in the position at the agency from 2009 to 2017, acknowledged in an interview that if the COVID-19 caseload remained low over the new weeks, it would be difficult to justify keeping the mask mandate in place.
But the physician, who is also a contributor to The Hill, warned that there were still a few weeks left before April 18 and that BA.2 could see an increase of cases in the U.S.
“Cases are down to a much lower level than they’ve been at previously in the pandemic for quite a while, and they continue to come down. Now, the sad fact is that it’s not unlikely that we will see a resurgence with the BA.2 variant, so it’s quite possible that … the mandate could go away, and then we could have a big increase in cases, so that could certainly happen,” Frieden said.