(AP) — Boston urged people to start wearing masks Thursday and the Biden administration weighed its next legal step in what is shaping up to be a high-stakes court fight over the abrupt end of the national mask mandate on airplanes and mass transit.
The Boston Public Health Commission noted a rise in hospitalizations, as well as a 65% increase in cases and an even larger spike in Covid-19 levels in local wastewater samples. It also stressed that the guidance was merely a recommendation, not an order.
The country is wrestling with how to deal with the next phase of the pandemic and find the right balance in enacting health measures at a time when many Americans are ready to move on after two exhausting years.
A federal judge in Florida this week threw out a national mask mandate on mass transportation, and airlines and airports responded swiftly Monday by repealing their requirements that passengers wear face coverings. That put the Biden administration in the position of trying to navigate an appeal that could have sweeping ramifications over the power that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has in regulating future health emergencies.
Los Angeles County bucked national trends and said Thursday it will still require masks on public transit including trains, subways, buses, taxis and rideshares. Cases have risen in the past week and hospitalizations have plateaued after falling the previous two months.
Philadelphia last week became the first big city to bring back a mask mandate, responding to a rise and infections and hospitalizations there, and other cities in the Northeast have been closely watching the trend lines and a new color-coded map from the CDC to decide next steps.
The map that the CDC switched to in late February is less focused on positive test results and more on what’s happening at hospitals to give community leaders clearer guidelines on when to urge masking. Nearly 95% of U.S. counties still have low transmission based on the map, but more places have shifted to medium and high transmission in recent weeks, including many places in upstate New York.
Hospitalizations nationally have ticked up in recent weeks but are nowhere near the peak reached at the height of the omicron surge.
“Covid-19 cases have increased rapidly citywide, so we need people to be vigilant and take precautions that can help us avoid another potential surge,” said Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, the Boston commission’s executive director. “Living with Covid-19 is about collective responsibility and working together.”
She said people in Boston should mask indoors, stay up to date with their vaccinations and test for suspected infections.
The Boston recommendation came two days after the city's transit system lifted mask requirements in response to the national transportation ruling, reflecting the mishmash of reactions following the court decision by an appointee of former President Donald Trump.
As the Biden administration figures out an appeal, Lawrence Gostin, a public health law expert at Georgetown University, said a “monumental battle" was shaping up, with the future of the CDC at stake. The agency continues to recommend that people wear masks in all indoor public transportation settings.
“The question the courts are going to have to decide, and the public will have to decide, is when the next health crisis hits — and it will — will we have a strong public health agency to protect the population?” he said. “Or will the CDC simply have its hands tied behind its back? I think it’s a very really possibility we’re going to see the CDC handcuffed.”