Masks now set to come off May 3 on transit, airplanes: Here's what to know

A supercontagious strain of COVID-19 poses enough of a health risk that mask requirements on planes and public transit will remain through May 3 instead of being lifted Monday, federal officials announced last week.

But does the extension of the restrictions pose a different risk — a continuation of mask-related bad behavior at 35,000 feet?

Hopefully not, commercial pilot Dennis Tajer of Arlington Heights said, given that a reprieve of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration's face covering mandate is close.

“(These days) I don't sense the tension in the air,” he said. “People are like, 'We're getting close.'”

In 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration recorded a record 5,981 unruly passenger disruptions on flights. Of those, 4,290, or nearly 11.7 a day, were caused by people defying mask rules. Scenarios ranged from belligerent comments to assaulting flight attendants.

That obnoxious behavior is down by about 38% in 2022. As of Thursday, the tally of mask misbehavior on airplanes is 744 occurrences, or 7.3 a day.

On April 6, the Allied Pilots Association, representing American Airlines pilots, told Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a letter that the mask rule “appears to add to the stress on the flying public and likely contributes to the increase in security incidents caused by unruly passengers aboard aircraft and within airports,” which are also included in the mask rule.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control explained the extension was needed to assess a rise in COVID-19 infections caused by the latest mutation, BA.2, and the impact on hospitalizations and deaths.

“We're as eager to be done wearing the masks as anyone,” but “we'll comply and do our jobs just like we did throughout the pandemic,” said Tajer, an official with the Allied Pilots Association.

Aviation expert and DePaul University Professor Joseph Schwieterman suggested “the decision to extend the mandate only a few weeks may indicate that there is disagreement within the administration about the policy.”

With multiple sides weighing in, “the Biden administration feels pressure to continuously re-evaluate its mask policy. I suspect by mid-May, the mandate will be gone, at least on domestic flights,” Schwieterman noted.

Metra, Pace and the CTA also fall under federal government regulations. Assuming the May 3 timetable remains, Pace buses will be mask-optional, Executive Director Melinda Metzger said.

“This is a choice. No one will say one choice is right and the other is wrong,” Metzger said.

“We will continue our extreme cleaning of our buses,” she added. “That will never change.”

On Metra, you can expect some riders such as James Costello to stick with the status quo.

“I'm a 68-year-old guy with a six-year-old heart valve who takes the possibility of a COVID-19 infection seriously,” Costello said.

“(But) my bigger concern is that the trains are once more filling up. The 6-foot (social distance) rule is an interesting concept, but it has nothing to do with the reality of taking a train to and from Chicago.”

Experts advise people with underlying medical conditions to wear a high-quality N95 mask in higher-risk situations like crowded indoor spaces.

Edward Hospital infectious disease specialist Dr. Jonathan Pinsky said he is “vaccinated and now double-boosted. I feel very safe and know if I got infected, I don't have to worry much. But I also don't want to get sick.”

Pinsky recommends erring on the safe side. “People come from all over the world in an airport and there's people from all different parts of the world on an airplane. If I'm in a plane or a bus, it's not a big ask for me to put on a mask and wear it for that trip.”

Gridlock alert

IDOT is advising drivers to expect angst starting today on Route 25 between Hazel Avenue in Aurora and River Bend Road in Montgomery as crews close lanes intermittently to patch and resurface. Work wraps up July.

You should know

Heading downtown for Bulls playoffs or White Sox and Cubs action? The CTA wants suburbanites to realize transit's an option with its United Center Express Bus No. 19 that runs right by the Ogilvie Transportation Center. The agency also operates park-and-ride lots from the suburbs, including the Rosemont and Forest Park Blue Line stops.

Must we wear masks on trains and planes, still?

U.S. requiring masks on planes, transit an extra month as it weighs new approach

Travelers line up at O'Hare International Airport in 2021. The federal requirement to wear face masks on airplanes, in airports and on public transportation is now scheduled to expire May 3. Associated Press
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