‘I was happy. I could breathe better’: Travelers, crew left confused after mask mandate was lifted

‘I was happy. I could breathe better’: Travelers, crew left confused after mask mandate was lifted

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Alexandra Rybakovsky saw the news Monday night mid-flight on a seatback monitor.

As she was walking off the plane she noticed flight attendants chatting about it as they took off their masks. 

The New Jersey resident was flying back with her family from Aruba when they learned that masks were no longer required on domestic flights.

“We were relaxed all the way there, it’s not (a) bother (for) us to wear it,” she told USA TODAY. “Most of the time we don’t need it because we’re vaccinated.” 

Her family took their masks off once off the plane. But Rybakovsky still had hers in her pocket.

Sonya Yurchenko, 13, said she was glad to have themask off.

“I feel better. Without (the mask) it feels more normal, back to how it was before,” she said 

NO MORE MASKS?: Federal judge voids US mask mandate for planes, public transportation after CDC extension

WHAT TRAVELERS NEED TO KNOW: Airlines are ditching face mask rules for the first time in two years

The federal government said Monday passengers traveling on airplanes and other forms of public transportation won’t be required to wear a face mask for now after a federal judge in Florida voided the mandate.

The decision Monday by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa says the federal mask mandate exceeded the authority of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which failed to justify the order and didn’t follow proper rulemaking procedures.

But official communication from federal agencies to airports and carriers came late Monday, leaving crew and passengers confused. 

“Right now, we still feel like we still need to wear it,” Josephine Vazquez, a United customer service representative, told USA TODAY noting she hadn’t gotten many questions from passengers about the mask mandate lifting yet.

“We don’t want any chance of getting sick so we’re going to protect ourselves,” she said, adding that sometimes passengers get close to their faces during interactions. 

‘It’s something I’ve definitely been waiting for’

For Sarah Naranjo of Pennsylvania, who had been traveling with her family for days thanks to flight cancellations and delays, the mask mandate couldn’t have gotten there sooner.

“(I) wore a mask the whole flight, saw they dropped the mandate, heard an employee (at the airport) say that we didn’t have to wear one so took it off,” she said near Newark Liberty International Airport’s baggage claim. “It’s something I’ve definitely been waiting for but I knew it was coming eventually.” 

United ramp agent Levi Haughton told USA TODAY he hadn’t heard of the mask mandate lifting.

“As far as I know on airport property we have to wear a mask, and on the public bus,” he said. “It wasn’t disclosed to us, so we just kept on doing it.”

Brennan Palmiter, who landed in Las Vegas Monday afternoon for the Inside Self-Storage World Expo, said that a mask mandate holding strong inside airports while the world outside shed their face coverings didn’t add up for him, but he viewed the mandate as a minor inconvenience.  

 ​​​​​​“I’m excited that they’ll be going away,” the Dallas resident said. “(But) if it makes someone else a little more comfortable, I’ll inconvenience myself for a short period of time.”

Not everyone is aligned on the mask mandate

At Harry Reid International Airport, located just off the Las Vegas Strip, the majority of (but not all) travelers milling about inside the airport continued to cover their face. Many were surprised when told that the TSA was no longer enforcing the mask mandate.

Despite the shift, speakers inside the airport continued to remind passengers every few minutes that face masks were mandated by the federal government and mouths and noses should be covered. 

Gretta Robinson of Twin Falls, Idaho learned about the updated masking rules after arriving in Las Vegas. The 19-year-old said she was happy to see another pandemic-era policy relaxed. 

“I follow the rules, but obviously I wish there weren’t any masks,” she said. “(I want) to see people’s faces. … I hope it means it’s close to being over. Maybe it’s a sign we’re getting close to the end.”

Meanwhile, for many travelers at Oakland International Airport in California, the news was still making its way to travelers. 

“I will still wear my mask. It’s served me well so far and I see no reason to stop,” Michelle Gitu, 72, said.

Gitu, who’s “vaccinated and boosted,” said that despite the mandate being lifted, “you must protect yourself and have to take personal responsibility” for yourself and those around you.

David Peterkofsky, 52, of Oakland, California, agrees, saying he’s not ready to drop the mask.

“And it’s hard to pinpoint why,” he confessed to USA TODAY, adding that while he may feel more comfortable not wearing a mask in places like a restaurant, he’s not comfortable yet sitting “shoulder-to-shoulder” next to strangers maskless on a plane.

Quinn Reid of Calgary, Alberta, was disappointed to find a news alert on his phone shortly before his flight left for Las Vegas, notifying him of the masking rules update. 

“We know that this virus is airborne. We know that KN95s are the gold standard for preventing spread. And it works best when everybody masks,” Reid said. “It’s not that big of an inconvenience to put a respirator on. What is an inconvenience is going on a ventilator.”

Las Vegas resident Zach Upton said the couple would be wary of flying without a mask mandate. The two planned to continue masking on public transportation. 

“Everybody says we have to learn to live with it,” Reid said behind his mask, throwing his hands in the air. “Do you know what living with COVID means? Mandatory vaccines, mandatory masking. That’s how you live with COVID. Not doing those things is how you die with COVID.”

At Newark International Airport you could spot some travelers wearing masks and others not – and some had theirs half off. Everyone seemed to be going by their own preferences.

Genise and Al Zucker, who were at the airport to see their daughter off before her flight to Brazil, where they reside for part of the year, told USA TODAY they weren’t aware of the change, but they aren’t too happy about mask mandates dropping overall. 

“There are too many mutations, strains (and we) have a very, very large portion of this country that is not vaccinated and serve as human Petri dishes,” Al said. 

“I don’t like the mask on the flight. It’s an incredible pain in the (expletive) on the long flights, but I also happen to like breathing and I want to keep doing that,” he continued, noting that he, his wife and daughter have all had COVID. 

That wasn’t the case for Jose Hernandez. “We started cheering,” he said.

Hernandez was on his way to Las Vegas on a Southwest flight when someone took to the intercom to make an announcement: the passengers were free to remove their masks.

While “a few” passengers kept their masks on, Hernandez said he ripped his off immediately.

“I was happy. I could breathe better,” he said. “I think it should have been optional the whole time. If you want to take the risk, take the risk.”

The Paradise, California native said he hadn’t done much traveling the past two years due to the pandemic, but flew to Las Vegas Monday to marry his fiancee. The two said they plan to travel more now that the mask mandate is gone, with either Utah or Florida next on their list. 

“I hope everyone takes advantage now before they sneak up on us again and try to mandate it again,” Hernandez said.

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