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The Mass Media

What the recent federal mask mandate decision means for MBTA riders

On Monday, April 18, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle handed down a controversial decision on federal mask mandates for public transportation. After years of battling over public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, the long-standing mandate was finally struck down. This has come just a few weeks before it was set to expire after a two-week extension by the CDC.

Mizelle, who is a recent appointee of the former Trump administration, reasoned that the mandate “exceeded the statutory authority of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” according to Tierney Sneed of CNN.

Sneed reports that the ruling initially relies upon a 1944 statute, which states that the federal government can regulate behavior and practices which concern “sanitation” in response to disease outbreaks. Mizelle’s reasoning is that masks do not ”sanitize”; therefore, the CDC has overstepped its bounds.

According to the judge’s ruling, “the CDC required mask wearing as a measure to keep something clean—explaining that it limits the spread of COVID-19 through prevention, but never contending that it actively destroys or removes it.” Sneed also reports that the rest of Mizelle’s ruling declares that the mandate violates both a law which allows travelers to be detained if they are ill—because mask mandates apply to everyone, regardless of illness—and overstepped proper implementation procedures.

According to POLITICO reporters, the Biden administration has been sending “mixed signals” about how they wish to move forward. They also report that while the decision to appeal has been handed to the CDC themselves, “there is growing consensus among White House and public health officials that an appeal would be impractical.”

However, the CDC has ultimately recommended that the Department of Justice appeal Mizelle’s decision, and the DOJ has confirmed this course of action. In the meantime, the federal mask mandate for public transportation has been immediately suspended; so immediately, in fact, that many airplane pilots announced that passengers could take off their masks right in the middle of their flights on Monday, as evidenced by videos circulating online and by news reports.

But what does this mean for the MBTA? On the day of the ruling, Boston Globe reporter Martin Finucane announced that the MBTA was reviewing the court order while keeping original CDC guidelines in place. Because Judge Mizelle’s ruling was specifically against the legality of a federal mandate, public transportation agencies and private transportation companies still have the ability to enforce mask mandates. But, as of Tuesday, April 19, the MBTA has updated their “Coronavirus Updates” page to reflect their new policy: No masks required, with the exception of passengers on The RIDE.

Because UMass Boston is a major commuter school, having built its very first student dorms only a few years ago, this ruling—and subsequent decision by the MBTA—is of major consequence to students and faculty, as well as their families and others in contact with them.

The school has already lifted its mask mandates—also a controversial decision to some, given the situation with air flow in Wheatley Hall as reported on by The Mass Media—so for many UMass Boston students and faculty, their day-to-day has become almost completely mask-optional. This is especially true for students who do not work outside the school, or whose workplaces do not require masks. Even with reports of increasing COVID-19 infection rates from new sub-variants in the news, the world seems to be throwing off the remaining weight of long-standing COVID-19 restrictions.

For some, this is a long-awaited relief; there are already scores of students and faculty who choose not to wear masks while on campus. But for others, this pattern of “returning to normalcy” is concerning. Even though the severity of symptoms seems to be waning, there are still high-risk individuals who can get extremely sick despite vaccinations, and young children who cannot get vaccinations at all yet. Many people are worried not only for themselves, but for high-risk friends, family and partners.

The New York Times has reported on such high-risk individuals—such as people with suppressed immune systems which stem from genetics, surgeries or other causes—who are feeling left behind and ignored by the current “back to normal” paradigm. According to their testimonies, what is “normal” for others is still dangerous and potentially life-threatening for them.

Some are of the opinion that high-risk individuals should simply wear high-quality masks and move on. But while the quality of masks matters quite a bit in terms of effectiveness, the protection from any sort of mask is compounding; the more people who are wearing masks in a given room, the more protection people have against the virus. The MBTA says they are continuing to follow CDC guidelines by “encouraging” mask wearing.

But, as many UMass Boston students may well know, not everybody has been wearing masks on the MBTA, even while the mandate was in effect. Comments on The Boston Globe website speak to this. In response to Martin Finucane’s article on the subject, user “justin_time” mused that “clearly it makes sense to wear a mask on a crowded train but if people don’t want to and no one is enforcing it anyway why bother [having a mandate]?”

So, what can you do if you want to remain protected? Assuming you are vaccinated and boosted, as is recommended by the CDC, the best course of action is still to wear a well fitting, high-quality mask such as an N95. As stated before, this individual action is not perfect, but it is the best way to protect oneself at this point in time.

There is also a way to assess risk, imperfect though it may be. In February, the CDC updated their masking recommendations and standards to reflect “COVID-19 Community Levels,” which go from green (low risk) to yellow (medium risk) to red (high risk). Each level has its own recommendations, and you can search community levels by county. The webpage, complete with county search function, can be found on the CDC’s website, or by searching “CDC COVID-19 community levels” on a search engine.

Suffolk County—where UMass Boston sits—has a COVID-19 community level of “medium,” which according to the CDC means that if you are at high-risk, you should consult a doctor about wearing masks or respirators in public. They also recommend testing before being in close contact with high-risk individuals and to wear a mask while around them indoors.

UMass Boston is still offering many online courses, and this may be another way to ensure a low risk of infection. Additionally, the school will continue to offer free COVID-19 testing. Because the Department of Justice has appealed Mizelle’s ruling, the possibility of the public transportation mask mandate returning is very real, though a reinforcement of the current decision by the Supreme Court could seriously damage the CDC’s power to enforce regulations during times of crisis. However, as the mandate was already set to expire on May 3, the future seems unclear.

About the Contributor
James Cerone, Opinions Editor