BBB: Masks are recommended but not required on local transit systems. SMDP Photo

If you happened to be riding the Big Blue Bus on Wednesday, you might not guess the transit system had dropped its mask mandate. Throughout the day, most drivers and passengers seen on an informal survey of bus trips around Santa Monica appeared still willing to mask up — whether they were aware of new rules that came out that morning or not. Many buses still showed flashing signboards warning “MASKS REQUIRED”.

The same was true on the Expo “E” Line trains in and out of Santa Monica, despite LA Metro also dropping mask rules this week, following a federal court decision out of Florida striking down the Biden administration’s federal mask rules.

“After a devastating winter surge that threatened the integrity of our healthcare system, the County is now enjoying low community levels of COVID-19. With more tools at our disposal to combat this virus, including wider availability of vaccines, tests, and therapeutics, the County can continue to progress towards its new normal,” LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis, chair of the Metro Board, said in a prepared statement provided by LA Metro. “However, it is important to recognize that we still live in a pandemic, thus face masks will continue to be strongly recommended on public transit to keep ourselves and those around us safe. I urge our residents to continue to remain vigilant and look out for one another as we move forward.”

A statement from Big Blue Bus said face coverings were still “strongly encouraged” but were no longer mandatory as of Wednesday morning, April 20.

“While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still recommends wearing a face covering on public transportation, we understand that everyone has a different level of comfort,” a statement from Big Blue Bus said. “Some riders may continue to wear a face covering for added safety, while others choose not to. We ask that you respect the preference of your Operator and fellow riders.”

A Monday ruling by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball of Tampa, Fla., ended — at least for now — the requirement that people wear masks on planes and public transportation; shortly after the decision, numerous airlines and transit authorities announced they would no longer be enforcing their mandates. 

By Wednesday afternoon, a notice of appeal was filed in federal court in Tampa, which came minutes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asked the Justice Department to appeal the decision.

The CDC said in a statement Wednesday that it is its “continuing assessment that at this time an order requiring masking in the indoor transportation corridor remains necessary for the public health.”

It remained unclear whether the Biden administration would ask the appeals court to grant an emergency stay to immediately reimpose the mask mandate on public transit. An emergency stay of the lower court’s ruling would be a whiplash moment for travelers and transit workers. 

In the hours between the court-ordered lifting of the federal mask mandate on Monday and the appeal on Wednesday, most airlines and many local transit agencies had already announced their own masking rules were being suspended.

Once TSA said it would no longer enforce the rule, airlines, airports, transit systems and ride-share services were free to decide for themselves whether to require masks. United, Delta, American, Southwest, Alaska, JetBlue and other airlines all made masks voluntary.

On the ground, however, requirements could vary from place to place. New York City’s public transit system planned to keep its mask requirement in effect. In San Francisco, the regional commuter rail system known as BART made masks voluntary, but the city transit authority did not.

The transit agency serving Philadelphia and its suburbs said masks will no longer be required on subways, buses and trains or in stations, even though the city has a mask mandate.

Uber and Lyft said they won’t require passengers to wear masks.

Here in the greater Los Angeles area, mask mandates were dropped on transit including Big Blue Bus, LA Metro, Metrolink trains, Amtrak trains and at LAX. 

The CDC had recently extended the mask mandate, which was set to expire Monday, until May 3, to allow more time to study the BA.2 omicron subvariant, which is now responsible for the vast majority of U.S. cases. But the court ruling Monday had put that decision on hold.

The CDC said it will continue to monitor public health conditions to determine if a mandate would remain necessary. It said it believes the mandate is “a lawful order, well within CDC’s legal authority to protect public health.”

Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said Wednesday night that the department was filing the appeal “in light of today’s assessment by the CDC that an order requiring masking in the transportation corridor remains necessary to protect the public health.”

David Koenig, Michael Balsamo and Zeke Miller contributed to this report.

emily@smdp.com