Seattle Transit Agencies Reacted Very Differently to the Mask Mandate Repeal
With the proverbial bang of a federal judge's gavel last week, the Centers for Disease Control's travel mask mandate is no more. Some delighted flight crews and airplane passengers whipped their masks off mid-flight; others tweeted alarmed accounts of the perturbing change.
I am on a plane with my 2 not-yet-eligible for vax kids & the pilot just announced that the mask mandate has just this minute ended. Ppl clapped & took off their masks. Here we are having boarded a plane with our kids. Very upset, @Delta, that this was announced mid flight.— Brooke Tansley (@BrookeTansley) April 19, 2022
Dr. Anthony Fauci called the repeal "unfortunate," while King County public health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin tweeted, "This is not a decision based on effectiveness or public health need, but administrative process." Let's just say it: The health experts would likely advise you to keep your mask on when enclosed in a flying metal tube (or bus or train) with strangers.
Why? Even though we've tiptoed into the "live with it" stage of the pandemic here in Washington, the most vulnerable among us—people who are immunocompromised, kids under five who still aren't eligible for a jab—rely on universal masking and other safety measures to keep themselves safe.
Here in King County, the number of positive cases has continued its slow climb since mid-March. The latest data shows Covid cases are up 19 percent over the last seven days.
The Department of Justice has since appealed that judge's ruling, mostly to avoid setting this type of precedent for future outbreaks and pandemics, but public transit agencies and airlines have had to adapt in the meantime. And not without some gaffes.
Delta put out an overeager statement shortly after the decision, calling Covid "an ordinary seasonal virus." The company quickly went into damage control following some hefty backlash, later revising the statement for "clarity and accuracy" to refer to it as "a more manageable respiratory virus."
So how did Seattle and King County transportation and travel entities communicate the change?
King County Metro
A day after the federal ruling, Metro published a blog post titled "Masks recommended on transit"...only to say it would no longer require face coverings on its buses and water taxis. If this seems like Metro is talking out of both sides of its articulated bus, consider that this was a coordinated announcement with seven other agencies, including Sound Transit, Seattle Department of Transportation, and the Seattle Center Monorail (more on those below).
One of those aforementioned "other agencies," Sound Transit frames its policy change more plainly: "Masks are no longer required on transit and in transit facilities in the Puget Sound region" but that "riders are welcome to continue wearing face coverings if they wish." The decision covers light rail and Sounder trains, as well as express buses.
Seattle Department of Transportation
SDOT also flipped on mask requirements for the Seattle Streetcar, but it has posted no additional information about the policy change beyond the joint statement released with the other transit agencies. While SDOT runs the streetcar, its operations are in partnership with Metro.
Seattle Center Monorail
If you don't acknowledge it, maybe it didn't happen? That seems to be the approach of the monorail, which doesn't mention the mask mandate repeal but does say it "strongly encourages wearing a mask in the stations and on the trains."
Washington State Ferries
Buried between updates about schedule changes and food galleys reopening, WSDOT simply notes that masks are optional for the public in its vessels and terminal—and that the CDC still recommends wearing masks in indoor transportation settings.
We see why Mr. Amtrak loves his trains. Offering two routes between Seattle and Portland, Amtrak has issued one of the more subversive statements about the masking mandate upheaval: "While Amtrak passengers and employees are no longer required to wear masks while on board trains or in stations, masks are welcome and remain an important preventive measure against COVID-19." The company also notes that it requires its employees to be vaccinated or submit a negative test every week.
Do we sense a hint of "good riddance" sentiment in Sea-Tac's seven-word update, posted the same day as the judge's ruling? "Masks are now optional at SEA Airport." They do, however, toss the CDC a cookie at the end, noting its recommendation to keep on masking.
If there was a rip-your-mask-off-in-celebration moment, this was it. Alaska published a blog post the day of the ruling with a photo of a beaming flight attendant pulling a mask from her face. The release says "masks are optional in airports and onboard aircraft, effective immediately," and that "we love to see your smiling faces," but adds that it respects the decision of some passengers to remain masked. If that unbridled enthusiasm makes you nervous about flying on Alaska any time soon, a spokesperson later told the Los Angeles Times it may consider refunding your ticket, but on a "case-by-case basis."