As record numbers of Americans took to the air for the holiday weekend, the U.S. transportation secretary defended the federal mask mandate during air travel but said the guidance would “evolve” with the science.
The flood of holiday travelers over the Memorial Day weekend comes as COVID-19 infection levels reach new lows in the metropolitan area and most places in the United States.
The more than 1.96 million travelers screened Friday at American airports was the highest daily travel tally for 2021, with 1.6 million screened Saturday, according to the federal Transportation Security Administration.
A year ago, as the pandemic was still ravaging the country, that figure was more than 327,000 and 268,000 on those two days, federal figures show.
From Friday through Tuesday, more than 920,000 passengers were expected to go through checkpoints in LaGuardia, Kennedy, Newark Liberty and New York Stewart airports, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said.
But even the fully vaccinated must mask up for air travel.
On April 30, the TSA extended the federal mask mandate for all transportation systems through Sept. 13. That includes airports, onboard commercial aircraft, commuter bus and rail systems, and over-the-road buses.
“Part of it has to do with the unique conditions of the physical space,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on CNN’s “State of the Union” news program. “Part of it has to do with the conditions of it being a workplace, and folks who really don’t have a choice about being there, the way it is in some other cases,” Buttigieg said.
“Of course, these rules and regulations and these bodies of guidance always evolve with the science,” he added.
Darby LaJoye, the acting administrator of the TSA , said in a news release announcing the initiative: “The federal mask requirement throughout the transportation system seeks to minimize the spread of COVID-19 on public transportation.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said people who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear masks, even indoors, but they have excluded crowded indoor settings like airplanes, buses and health care facilities.
Meanwhile, infections are continuing to slow in New York, and Long Island. The COVID-19 positivity rate was 0.64% Saturday.
The statewide seven-day average was 0.71%, a 55th consecutive day of decline, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office announced Sunday.
But Cuomo, in a statement Sunday, expressed concern about the declining vaccination rate.
“Hospitalizations and the positivity rate are declining, but so is the vaccination rate, and we need to get creative to encourage the remaining New Yorkers to take the shot.”
There were just more than 104,851 vaccine doses administered statewide in the 24 hours ending Sunday morning, a decline from 149,543 doses given over the same 24-hour period three weeks ago, state data show.
Over the past week, 618,818 doses were administered, a steep decline from about 1.1 million administered during the first week of May.
The state has tried to make it easy to get a vaccination, including at pop-up sites in New York City subway stops and in Long Island Rail Road stations. Incentives to roll up sleeves include Yankees and Mets tickets, free alcoholic beverages, and $20 lottery tickets with a top prize of $5 million.
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