Dick and Dee Dee Calper of North Carolina await their flight at Portland International Jetport on Tuesday. Dee Dee Calper said she usually won’t wear a mask if it’s not required, “but I think I will on the plane.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Tuesday was the last day people using public transportation in southern Maine were required to wear masks, a change spurred by a federal judge’s ruling that struck down a nationwide face covering mandate.

The Portland International Jetport dropped its mask mandate Tuesday, and six regional transit agencies announced masks will no longer be required on public buses, passenger trains and ferries starting Wednesday.

While masks are welcome as a preventive measure against COVID-19 infection, they are not being required by Greater Portland Metro, Casco Bay Lines, City of South Portland Bus Service, Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Transit, Amtrak Downeaster and Regional Transportation Program.

“Passengers are advised that agencies may reinstate mask requirements at any time in the future should local, state or federal jurisdictions compel them to do so or if such a policy is deemed, by the agency, to best protect the health and well-being of its employees and passengers,” the agencies said.

On Monday, a federal judge in Florida struck down a national mask mandate on all public transportation that was imposed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public transportation was one of the last arenas that required face coverings intended to prevent COVID-19 infections. The CDC recently extended the rule until May 3.

Major airlines moved quickly to drop mask requirements for passengers and staff, the Transportation Security Administration said it would not enforce masking on public transportation or transportation hubs, and the CDC said it would stop enforcing the rule.

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During a trip to New Hampshire on Tuesday to promote infrastructure spending, President Biden said the decision to wear masks on public transportation was up to individual Americans, and the Department of Justice said it would not appeal the ruling unless the U.S. CDC believes the requirement is still necessary.

About half of the travelers at the Portland International Jetport on Tuesday continued to wear masks, while others gladly went bare-faced.

Stephanie Thompson of Virginia wears a mask below her chin while waiting for her mother to arrive at Portland International Jetport on Tuesday. She said she understood if people wanted to keep the masks on, but she was ready to take hers off. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

READY TO UNMASK

Stephanie Thompson dropped off her boyfriend at Boston Logan International Airport on Monday, when masks were still required. She picked up her mom at the Portland Jetport on Tuesday, when they had become optional. Thompson, who lives in Virginia but traveled to Maine to visit a family cottage on Great Diamond Island, noticed a significant drop in the number of masks in just 24 hours.

“It’s amazing how different it is in a day,” she said, with her mask under her chin in the arrivals area.

She understood that other travelers might want to keep their masks on, but she was ready to take hers off, especially after wearing one for more than 15 consecutive hours on multiple flights to London last year. She said she is vaccinated and not too worried about catching COVID-19.

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“Greeting people at the airport, smiling at them, it’s nice,” she said as she waited for her mom.

Dick and Dee Dee Calper flew to Maine from North Carolina last week to surprise their family and spend Easter with them. They got to the airport a few hours before their return trip Tuesday and rested on a quiet bench. They took off their masks but kept them handy for the flight.

“If it’s not required, I usually don’t wear it,” Dee Dee Calper said. “But I think I will on the plane.”

The airline industry has emphasized how safe airplane travel is in terms of air quality and circulation compared to other activities. A Department of Defense study late in 2020 concluded a person would have to sit next to infectious person for 54 hours to receive a dangerous dose of the virus in the air, but it assumed that passengers were wearing surgical masks. The International Air Transport Association trade group says cabin air is refreshed 20 to 30 times an hour, about 10 times more than most office buildings. Cabin air is half fresh, pulled in from outside the plane, and half is recycled through high-efficiency particulate air filters.

PROTECTION FROM OTHER GERMS

Carrie Mastrogincomo of Poland and her 12-year-old daughter took their masks off while they sat in an empty corner of baggage claim, but said they wore them in the security line and near other people at their gate. They’re vaccinated and boosted and not extremely worried about COVID-19, but said they liked that masks protected them from other germs, too. So they plan to keep wearing masks on planes for now.

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“It’s more the other stuff you can catch in the circulated air,” Mastrogincomo said.

Popular passenger bus company Concord Coach Lines dropped its mask requirement soon after the federal ruling. The company, which owns the Portland Transportation Center, has routes that connect Maine towns and cities as far north as Orono to Portland, Boston and Logan Airport.

“Effective immediately, masks are optional for all Concord Coach Lines employees and passengers while at our stations or on our buses,” Vice President Benjamin Blunt said in a statement. The company is updating mask information on its website and throughout its bus system.

Public transportation ridership has recovered slowly two years after bottoming out in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Lifting the mask rule likely won’t make a substantial difference, either for potential riders who didn’t take the bus because they don’t like to wear one, or those who might now stay away because of health concerns.

“We are grateful for our staff who has adhered to and enforced this policy over the course of the last two years and to our passengers that have complied with it. We are also grateful that they are no longer required to,” Blunt said. “We do not predict any significant changes in our ridership, up or down, as a result of the policy change.”

ONE LESS THING TO MONITOR

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Patricia Quinn, executive director of Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority that runs the Downeaster train, said making masks optional could bring back passengers for whom wearing a mask for hours on a train was an inconvenience. In March, ridership on the train was 80 percent of what it was during the same month before the pandemic.

“I think people are ready for the mask mandate to be lifted and to have the option,” Quinn said. Removing a masking rule is a relief for conductors and other staff who had been tasked with policing it.

“It’s one less thing for our crews to monitor,” Quinn said. “Enforcing a new requirement added something to their job, they are happy not to have to do that anymore.”

In Maine, a statewide mask mandate in most settings was dropped along with other pandemic restrictions nearly a year ago as COVID-19 vaccinations surged and cases eased. Public transit seemed an outlier when, at the same time, unmasked people could crowd into restaurants, bars and entertainment venues.

No statewide mandate has been in effect since, although the U.S. CDC recommended masking in high-transmission areas, face coverings were required in many schools, and some southern Maine communities, including Portland, enacted brief indoor mask rules this winter. Most restrictions statewide have since been relaxed or eliminated.

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