Despite great pressure from airlines, the hospitality industry and Republican lawmakers to lift the rule requiring masks on planes and trains, in airports and on some buses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it would extend the federal transportation mask requirement for two weeks on Wednesday, five days before it was set to expire. The mask mandate is now extended through May 3, the agency said.
The C.D.C. cited the spread of the Omicron subvariant of the coronavirus known as BA.2, which the agency said now makes up more than 85 percent of new U.S. virus cases, in its decision to continue the mask requirement.
“Since early April, there have been increases in the 7-day moving average of cases in the U.S.,” the agency said in a statement. “In order to assess the potential impact the rise of cases has on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and health care system capacity, the C.D.C. order will remain in place at this time.”
Ahead of the decision, Dr. Ashish K. Jha, the new White House Covid response coordinator, told NBC’s “Today” show that Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the C.D.C., would be utilizing a “framework that the C.D.C. scientists create” to determine whether the extension was necessary.
“We’ll make a decision collectively based on that,” he said while simultaneously calling it a C.D.C. decision.
In recent days, new U.S. cases have started ticking up again. As of Tuesday, the nation was reporting more than 31,000 new cases a day on average, 8 percent more than two weeks before, according to a New York Times database, though the case counts have not approached the peak seen in the winter Omicron surge.
Reported cases may be an undercount of the virus’s true spread to some degree, since access to at-home tests has increased and the results of such tests are often not officially reported.
The possibility of an extension had provoked applause from some travelers and commuters, who say the requirement make them feel safer in crowded planes, airports and buses, as new variants spread, and disappointment from others, who feel that it is nonsensical to require masks in the sky and in airports when they are no longer required in most other indoor settings. Public health experts have said masks help slow the transmission of the virus.
“This is absurd,” Ari Fleischer, a media consultant who served as a White House spokesman for President George W. Bush, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “Either there is a public health threat requiring all citizens to wear masks everywhere, or there’s not.”
“The C.D.C. is extending the mask mandate for public transport for two weeks,” he wrote. “That’s not enough. Millions rely on public transportation every day to get to work or access essential services.”
In recent months, airlines and the hospitality industry have been lobbying the White House to overturn both the mask rule and the requirement to test before returning to the United States from abroad. In one of the most recent letters, dated April 8, Airlines for America, an industry group representing eight airlines; the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group representing more than 1,000 public and private organizations catering to business and leisure travelers; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobbying group; and the American Hotel and Lodging Association, which represents thousands of hotels, sent a letter to Dr. Jha, arguing that what they see as unnecessary measures were hurting the country economically.
“While the public health benefits of these policies have greatly diminished, the economic costs associated with maintaining these measures are significant,” they wrote.
On Wednesday, shortly before the C.D.C. announcement, Airlines for America sent yet another letter to Dr. Walensky, the C.D.C. director, pushing for a detailed explanation of why masks are still necessary on planes.
“If the federal mask mandate is extended, the administration should publish the data and science used to reach that,” Nicholas E. Calio,the president of the group, wrote.
By many accounts, enforcement has been one of the most challenging aspects of the mask mandate, with many passengers verbally and even physically assaulting flight attendants who reminded them to cover their nose and mouth. Ahead of the decision, major unions representing flight attendants and Transportation Security Administration employees, the two groups that have to deal with enforcing the rule, declined to take a stance.
“Whatever the agency puts in place, we have to comply with it,” said Hydrick Thomas, the president of the union that represents Transportation Security Administration employees, on Tuesday. He added that he believes that masks protect his employees, their families and “the flying public.”
The C.D.C. could extend the mask rule again before May 3 or let it expire.