Masks on trains and planes, still? TSA policy decision coming soon

As COVID-19 cases decline and face mask rules disappear, public transportation is the final frontier. But that could change next week.

A U.S. Transportation Security Administration policy mandating masks on public transit and in aviation settings is set to expire on March 18 unless the government extends the mandate as it has previously.

Will that happen? The TSA has not shown its hand yet, although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control relaxed multiple mask recommendations on Feb. 25.

“The face mask requirement remains in place and we will continue to assess the duration of the requirement in consultation with the CDC,” a TSA official said Wednesday.

At the Downers Grove Metra station last week, commuter Latrece Noble was fine with a mask-optional policy, but “I'll still wear mine,” she said.

Downers Grove rider Daniel Gregory is “someone who got the new variant of COVID some months ago and got through it. I'm not too scared about that anymore,” he said.

“But I recognize there are plenty of people who might still have issues with COVID, like my mother, so anything to keep them safe. As far as Metra goes ... probably best to keep it on a couple more months, maybe.”

While waiting for an inbound train, Breno Bison said, “I think it would be OK to take it off. I feel pretty comfortable. I've had my three shots.”

Metra “will follow the TSA order until it ends. Therefore, if it is extended beyond March 18, it will be extended onboard,” spokeswoman Meg Thomas-Reile said.

Meanwhile, the airline industry is pushing to lift the mandate amid a spate of disruptive passengers. As of Feb, 28, there were 712 reports of unruly travelers, and 424 of those conflicts involved face masks, according to the FAA.

“When mask rules are relaxed in other indoor settings and especially other transport modes, they should also be relaxed for air travel,” a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association said. “Aircraft are equipped with highly sophisticated hospital-quality filtration systems.”

Previously, some aviation unions have advocated masking as a key component in reducing spread of COVID-19. However, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants on Tuesday noted it “has not taken any position on the issue because we have not received an update from public health officials or TSA as of yet,” spokesman Paul Hartshorn said,

Chicago's hometown carrier will “continue following the federal guidelines on mask requirements on our aircraft and in our terminals if it is extended,” United Airlines spokeswoman Maddie King said.

Dr. Gregory Huhn, infectious disease physician and COVID-19 vaccine lead for Cook County Health, noted that a 2020 U.S. Department of Defense study of 777s and 767s “showed there is minimal risk of contracting coronavirus while flying.”

That's because sophisticated air filters force cabin air down so it's not hovering, and circulation systems import clean air from outside, he explained.

But “I would advocate for anyone that feels vulnerable that they wear a high-quality mask while flying,” such as an N95 or KN95, Huhn recommended. “A high-quality mask makes a difference. It brings down the risk.”

On trains or buses, Huhn points out that opening doors provide air circulation, but the same masking and risk principles apply to public transit.

Pace “has followed the guidance of public health and transportation officials throughout the pandemic, and we will continue to do so,” chief communications officer Maggie Daly Skogsbakken said. “If the TSA lifts the mandate, we will follow suit.”

“Passengers may continue to wear masks and we will continue to clean and sanitize vehicles frequently, provide hand sanitizer onboard buses, and maintain air filters to make sure our buses are as safe as possible for our passengers.”

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You should know

Have an itch to create? The Chicago Transit Authority is looking for artists to beautify five stations on the Red and Purple lines. Artists knowledgeable in two- and three-dimensional art are sought, but previous public art experience isn't necessary. The CTA displays over 70 artworks along its system, including ones by local artists. For information, go to

One more thing

Expect the unexpected this month overnight on I-290 near Berkeley as the Illinois tollway reconstructs the I-290/I-88 interchange at the Tri-State Tollway (I-294). Ramps connecting I-290 and I-294 will be closed sometimes overnight. This includes the northbound I-294 and eastbound I-88 to westbound I-290. Detours will be posted.

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  Metra officials say they'll follow the lead of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration when it comes to deciding whether to extend mask requirements that are set to expire March 18. Paul Valade/
  Passengers board a Metra train Wednesday in Downers Grove. Public transit and airplanes are among the few places where masks are still required as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but a TSA mandate is set to expire soon. Marni Pyke/
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