MTA, Port Authority maintain mask mandates, even as judge strikes down requirement for mass transit

Riders seen with and without masks at the 8th Avenue L-train station in Manhattan on March 27, 2022.
Photo by Dean Moses

The MTA is sticking with its mask mandate for now, even after a federal judge in Florida on Monday struck down the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s face-covering requirement on airplanes and public transit nationwide.

The transit authority said that it intends to keep its mandate in place on its buses, subways, and commuter railroads for now, citing a March recommendation from the state Health Department recommending masks continue to be required in certain settings, like public transit, even as the state has relaxed regulations elsewhere.

“The mask requirement on public transit in NY remains in effect for now pursuant to a March 2, 2022 determination by the New York State Department of Health,” said MTA spokesperson Tim Minton in a statement.

But even with the local mandate still in place, the ruling may serve to catalyze the gradual mask-shedding by Gotham straphangers that has been seen in recent months, even with the MTA plastering masking ads all over its trains and running consistent voice-over announcements reminding riders to wear a face-covering.

Federal Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle struck down the CDC’s nationwide mandate on April 18, arguing that the public health agency had overstepped its policymaking authority, just days after the mandate had been extended to May 3. Almost immediately after the ruling dropped, the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced that it would no longer enforce a mask mandate at the nation’s airports and transit hubs; numerous airlines also dropped their mask mandates, with some announcing the change mid-flight.

New Yorkers shouldn’t be so quick to shed their masks though; the Port Authority said Tuesday that masks are still required at its New York facilities, including JFK and LaGuardia Airports, the Port Authority Bus Terminal and George Washington Bridge Bus Station, and the Oculus. Masks remain a requirement on PATH trains.

“The Port Authority will continue to follow the guidance of the New York and New Jersey public health authorities with respect to mask mandates at its public transportation facilities,” a Port Authority spokesperson said.

The conflicting guidelines coming from different levels and entities of government have caused something of a mess at Penn Station. Amtrak, which owns the subterranean train hub, and New Jersey Transit have lifted their mask mandates, but masks remain a requirement on the Long Island Rail Road and the subway. Signs denoting a mask requirement were still up during the morning rush even as overhead announcements by Amtrak declared masks optional, Gothamist reported.

Cases have been on the rise in the five boroughs over the past several weeks owing to the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron, though still at nowhere near the levels seen during this winter’s surge. Though cases are reaching levels where the city Health Department recommends reinstating restrictions, Mayor Eric Adams — once again doing in-person events after coming out of COVID-19 isolation — would not commit to restoring any mandates.

The straphanger advocacy group Riders Alliance is hoping that, as case counts rise, New Yorkers continue to mask at a high rate relative to the rest of the country.

“Most New Yorkers are continuing to mask in transit as before,” said Riders Alliance policy and communications director Danny Harris. “With viral case counts unfortunately climbing, there’s a good reason for us to keep masking in our public transit system even as other regions and modes are taking a different route following the judge’s ruling. Hopefully, the trend here will turn around soon, more of us will feel confident taking off our own masks as well and local rules will reflect that development.”