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Wearing a mask protects you on planes, trains even without warrants


Masks are no longer required on most planes, subways or buses, after a Florida judge struck down the federal mask mandate for travel on Monday.

The decision came amid an increase in Covid cases in the United States, mainly due to the BA.2 omicron subvariant. New daily cases are up 42% over the past two weeks, according to the NBC News tally, though that number is almost certainly an undercount given the common use of home testing.

The Biden administration appealed the judge’s decision on Wednesday. The mask requirement was due to expire on May 3, although authorities were able to extend it again. Most major cities have lifted their transit mandates, though New York City has said masks are still required on subways, buses and commuter trains.

For many people, these abrupt changes have renewed questions about how to stay safe while travelling. According to some disease experts, flying or traveling alongside people without a mask does not pose a huge threat to those who are vaccinated and boosted and who keep their own mask.

“One-way masking is actually a very effective way to prevent acquisition of SARS-CoV-2,” said Joseph Lewnard, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health.

A February study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that wearing a cloth mask in indoor public places reduced a person’s chance of testing positive for Covid by 56%. Surgical and N95 masks reduced these odds by 66% and 83%, respectively. The study took place in 2021, however, before the rise of the omicron variant, and the researchers did not control for how often the masks were worn by other people.

Scott Weisenberg, an infectious disease specialist at New York University Langone Health, said that although the risk of contracting Covid for travelers is higher without the mandate, “you will still be less likely to contract Covid with a mask”.

He added that “people should wear the best quality masks they can get, and the N95 would definitely be the most reliable.”

Masks offer good protection on planes

Airplanes tend to have better air exchange rates than trains, hospital rooms or office buildings. A 2020 report from the Department of Defense found that aircraft ventilation and filtration systems could reduce exposure to airborne virus particles by 99%. But not all coronavirus particles are airborne; people can be exposed through large droplets.

This report also did not take into account people moving through the aisles or conversing with their neighbors. Airport security lines and boarding areas also provide opportunities for the virus to spread.

Once you’re on the plane, the best way to avoid infection is to keep your mask on for the entire flight, experts said.

“There have been instances where people have been exposed to Covid from people more than two rows away from them on a flight, but the highest risk will be the people immediately around you,” Weisenberg said.

If you need to eat or drink, he recommended putting your mask back on between bites or sips.

“To some degree, it’s futile to wear the mask part of the time if your goal is to benefit from wearing a mask,” Lewnard said.

If all passengers on a 12-hour flight took off their highly protective masks (like N95s) for an hour-long meal, according to a 2021 study, the likelihood of infection would be 52-59% higher than if no one took off their masks. However, the models in this study predate omicron and high vaccination rates.

Covid risk in metros, buses and trains

Ground transportation does not have the same level of air filtration as airplanes, but wearing a mask still reduces the risk of infection.

“Even if there is reasonable ventilation on a subway or a bus, there will be some risk if you’re sitting right next to someone,” Weisenberg said. “That risk will be higher if you both don’t wear a mask, and it can be reduced if you at least wear a good quality mask.”

He said he plans to continue wearing a mask on public transport and will distance himself at least a few meters from people who are not masked when possible.

But Lewnard said there was little point in trying to stay away from maskless commuters.

“Distances like 3 feet or 6 feet aren’t very relevant for transmission in situations where people are exposed in closed airspace for an extended period of time,” he said.

Masks aside, he added, the risk of exposure increases over time. When it comes to journeys, “the worse, the shorter the better,” he said.

What about children who cannot yet be vaccinated?

Vaccinated people should be reassured that Covid shots are still the best form of protection against serious illness, experts have said.

“There are many situations where wearing a mask all the time just isn’t practical,” Lewnard said. “Vaccination will work whether you eat, drink, wear a mask or do something else.”

But the Food and Drug Administration may not authorize Covid injections for children under 5 until June.

“If someone is unprotected, whether it’s a child under 5 or someone who’s immunocompromised and may not respond to vaccines, he really needs to talk to his providers about what else he can do to reduce his risk,” Weisenberg said. “But wearing high-quality masks should definitely be part of their strategy.”

Lewnard said he personally felt comfortable traveling without a mask mandate.

“The risk of getting infected is low and we are going to be exposed to SARS-CoV-2 for the rest of our lives,” he said. The pandemic, he added, is not something “that we can solve and eradicate by masking ourselves harder for a little longer”.

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