San Francisco's Municipal Transit Agency and Bay Area Rapid Transit will lift their mask mandates, at least for now, following a decision by a federal judge in Florida this week to quash the Biden Administration's nationwide mandate on planes, trains, and other forms of public transportation.
Rideshare companies and San Francisco International Airport have also officially made masks optional in line with the new legal order, which overturned a federal mandate established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Last week, the CDC extended the transit mask mandate until at least May 3 following an uptick in Covid cases due to the more infectious BA.2 Omicron subvariant.
But U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, an appointee of former President Trump, struck down the rule, saying the mandate exceeds the CDC’s “statutory authority” and violated rulemaking procedures. The CDC officially asked the Justice Department to appeal the ruling Wednesday, but NBC News reported that the Biden Administration is not seeking a stay of the court order lifting the mandate in the meantime.
"TSA will not enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs at this time,” the TSA said in a statement.
The move by federal authorities was followed by new guidance Wednesday from the California Department of Public Health that the state's requirement for masking on public transit and in transportation hubs is officially terminated.
“Going forward, California will strongly recommend masks on all public transportation and in transit hubs, including bus and train stations, ferry terminals and airports," Dr. Tomas Aragón, the state's top public health official said in a statement. "We continue to monitor federal action on this issue and will announce any additional changes to state policies as needed.”
SFMTA said on Thursday that it will lift its mask requirement at SFMTA facilities or on Muni vehicles effective Friday at midnight after receiving updated guidance from the California Department of Public Health and the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
This lifting of the masking mandate also includes taxis and paratransit services. The agency is still recommending riders continue to mask to protect those who may be at higher risk for infection, but masking is no longer required. At a meeting this week, however, members of the SFMTA's Board of Directors signaled that it imposing its own mask mandate is a possibility, but gave no indications of whether it will or won't.
The agency highlighted the strong airflow in the Muni fleet and the high vaccination rate in the region to assuage concerns about the mandate no longer being in place.
BART officially made face masks optional on Thursday following confirmation that no federal, state, or local level directives that enable a mask mandate on the system's trains.
The agency said that while masks are now optional, they are still "strongly encouraged." Free masks will continue to be provided by station agents and public safety staff.
BART Board President Rebecca Saltzman announced the system's Board of Directors will weigh whether to reimpose the mask mandate on BART at its next board meeting on April 28.
San Francisco International Airport
Following the court order, SFO announced that face masks are now optional inside its airport facilities.
“Effective immediately, masks are no longer required, but the CDC continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings,” the airport said in a statement Tuesday morning.
Many of SFO’s largest carriers have announced an end to their masking requirements on flights themselves. United Airlines, which handles around half of the airport’s flights, has said that it is no longer requiring masks on domestic flights for employees or guests. Alaska Airlines, SFO’s second most active carrier, has announced that masks are now optional in airports and on board aircraft, as have American Airlines and Delta.
Uber and Lyft
Both Uber and Lyft updated their policies on Tuesday morning to make masks optional for both riders and drivers after the court decision.
Uber notes that the “CDC still recommends wearing a mask if you have certain personal risk factors and/or high transmission levels in your area” but said wearing a mask is a matter of personal choice. The rideshare company said that riders may also sit in the front seat if it’s required because of the size of their group.
Lyft said wearing a mask is now optional for everyone in the car and has also removed the restriction for riders in the front seat. It says “anyone who wants to continue wearing a mask is encouraged to do so,” but it is removing health and safety reasons – like not wearing a mask — as cancellation options in the app.
During Monday’s White House press briefing, Biden Press Secretary Jen Psaki called the court decision “disappointing” and said the Department of Homeland Security and the CDC is reviewing the decision going forward.
“The CDC continues recommending wearing masks in public transit,” Psaki said at the briefing. “We also think the mask mandate should be in place and it’s safer for individuals who are flying to continue to wear masks.”
The case challenging the federal transit mask mandate was brought by the Health Freedom Defense Fund, a Wyoming advocacy organization that has filed a number of lawsuits against federal and local governments challenging mask and vaccine mandates.
This is a developing story and will be updated
Kevin Truong can be reached at [email protected]