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Biden is pressured to end mask mandates on public transportation

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK, you don't have to wear a mask in a whole lot of public places now, but travelers and commuters are still required to mask up on airplanes and in airports, as well as on trains, buses and other public transportation. The Biden administration is under growing pressure to end those rules. Here's NPR's David Schaper reporting from Chicago.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: President Biden imposed the mask requirement in one of his first acts in office in January of last year. Last month, his administration extended it through April 18. But after a four-hour flight from Los Angeles to Chicago's O'Hare Airport, 23-year-old Fredo Rodriguez had had enough of wearing a face mask.

FREDO RODRIGUEZ: I'm not really all for the mask stuff - kind of been over it for about, like, a year now, you know? As much as I see people take them on and off and, you know, it just doesn't really make sense to me, the rules and the guidelines, compared to what people are actually doing.

SCHAPER: Rodriguez is hardly alone. In fact, many have bristled at wearing a mask since the pandemic began, and being forced to wear one on a plane has led to outbursts, fights and even arrests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, it's a rule. Put the mask on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Do you guys go with everything...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Put the mask on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I don't have a problem putting the mask on. Now he wants me to get off.

SCHAPER: When a passenger refused to wear a mask on this Southwest flight last week, the crew had to empty the plane so she could be removed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We have to take everyone off the airplane.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SHOUTING)

SCHAPER: The FAA received nearly 6,000 reports of unruly airline passenger incidents last year, an all-time high. More than 70% of them were caused by mask conflicts. Airline CEOs who encouraged the White House to impose the mask mandate last year now say the time has come to end it. In a joint letter to the president, the CEOs say much has changed since the mandate was imposed, and it no longer makes sense in the current public health context, citing declining COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates. In extending the mandate last month, officials said the CDC would work to revise the policy framework for when and under what circumstances masks should be required in public transportation. But 21 mostly Republican-led states are not waiting for those revisions. They filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration, seeking to end the mandate, led by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: In Florida, we've been very clear that we want people to be able to make their own decisions. We don't believe in COVID theater.

SCHAPER: But despite the clamor to let passengers go mask-free, public health experts aren't so sure it's a good idea.

LEONARD MARCUS: A lot's going to depend on the course of the BA.2 variant.

SCHAPER: Leonard Marcus is director of the Aviation Public Health Initiative at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

MARCUS: So far, it's been a very low rumble. If it continues as a low rumble, I think we're at the point where we can lift that requirement to have masks worn on planes and in public transportation.

SCHAPER: But if BA.2 causes a big surge in COVID cases, as it has in Europe, Marcus says the Biden administration may need to keep the mask mandate in place. Julia Raifman teaches at Boston University School of Public Health and leads the COVID-19 state policy database there. She says the administration should keep requiring masks for everyone on planes and other modes of transit.

JULIA RAIFMAN: COVID does spread in all crowded indoor spaces. It is harmful when it spreads. And mask mandates help reduce that spread. And it's especially important for protecting people who are vulnerable, but also for protecting our society.

SCHAPER: And Raifman says if the Biden administration does lift the mask mandate, then it will be politically much more difficult to reinstate it if COVID-19 cases surge again.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.