BENNINGTON — One day after a federal judge in Florida struck down a mask requirement on travelers using indoor or enclosed public transportation, such as airplanes and trains, state Health Commissioner Mark Levine said he recommends that Vermonters continue masking up when traveling.
Levine’s advice tracks with the view of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which had extended the public transportation mask mandate through May 3.
Levine said U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle’s ruling was based on legal and procedural arguments, not public health considerations. Essentially, the judge ruled the CDC did not have the authority to require people to take personal hygienic measures.
“I think it’s a little premature timing from a public health standpoint,” Levine said of the ruling. “The reality is obviously when you’re in a wave of BA.2 (a COVID variant) … you’d like to be a bit more prudent and cautious.”
The Biden administration has not indicated whether it will appeal Mizelle’s ruling, and Levine said he would be watching for that decision. The mask mandate for travelers had been in place since February 2021.
In response to the judge’s ruling, major airlines (for domestic flights) and Amtrak immediately dropped mask requirements for employees and travelers. Burlington International Airport also made masking optional.
However, Levine said people should continue to wear masks in enclosed spaces such airports, airplanes, trains and other public transportation structures. “This is a recommendation, not a mandate.”
He said while the COVID caseload in Vermont is creeping up with the arrival of the BA.2 subvariant — with increases seen throughout the Northeast, elsewhere in the nation and world — the state’s COVID case growth is not following the steep increase seen with the omicron variant. And, he added, the BA.2 subvariant appears to cause milder symptoms than other COVID variants.
Finally, the commissioner said, so many Vermonters have received vaccinations and booster shots, or have had coronavirus, that they are well-immunized and less likely to experience serious or even deadly cases. He said it’s impossible to determine the true caseload, because most people are testing at home and not reporting their results to the state. But relatively low hospitalization rates support the view that BA.2 is a milder subvariant.
“Most Vermonters are not experiencing severe effects from this disease,” he said. There are Vermonters who are at high risk from coronavirus, including older people and those with underlying health issues. Levine said everyone should respect others’ decision to wear masks to protect themselves, friends or family members at risk, and children under 5 who are not eligible for the vaccine.
The commissioner said he expects children under 5 will be approved for the vaccine in May or June.