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Texas travelers greet end of masking requirements with a mix of optimism and apprehension

FILE - In this May 28, 2020, file photo, a passenger wears personal protective equipment on a Delta Airlines flight after landing at Minneapolis−Saint Paul International Airport in Minneapolis. Federal officials are extending into January a requirement that people on airline flights and public transportation wear face masks to limit the spread of COVID-19.
John Minchillo
Associated Press
FILE - In this May 28, 2020, file photo, a passenger wears personal protective equipment on a Delta Airlines flight.

A day after a federal judge ruled face coverings can’t be required on airplanes and other public transportation, some Texans cheered the decision. But others said they’re still on the fence as COVID lingers.

Several hours after taking a Tuesday flight from Hawaii to Texas, Britnee Burchett stood outside the El Paso International Airport corralling her luggage and soothing her 15-month-old daughter, Iris.

Burchett’s trip began less than a full day after a federal judge in Florida ruled that facial coverings could no longer be required on airline flights and some public transportation.

But as she waited for a ride Burchett still donned the cloth mask she wore on the flight.

“I’m a little leery of (dropping the mandate), just because I have a little one. And I am a little bit of a germophobe,” she said.

Burchett was one of thousands of travelers in Texas who were still processing the ruling, which is the latest in a series of relaxed or eliminated COVID-19 mitigation policies after a slowdown in cases across the country.

Airports across Texas lifted the mask requirements after the decision, as did most public transportation entities.

Houston Airport system spokesperson Augusto Bernal said while the mandate has been lifted, other COVID-19 precautions are still in place.

"We're still cleaning more frequently. We have cleaning robots that spray the restrooms and other areas in the terminal,” he said.  

Texas-based Southwest and American Airlines have also dropped masking requirements.

“We encourage individuals to make the best decision to support their personal well-being and to check local airport mask policies when traveling,” Southwest Airlines officials said in a statement. “Additionally, Southwest will continue supporting the comfort of those who travel with us by offering additional layers of protection, including sophisticated cabin air ventilation systems onboard our aircraft.”

Sandra Calhoun was waiting for a bus at Houston METRO’s downtown transit station on Tuesday and told Houston Public Media she thought a mask mandate should still apply in some instances — at least until the number of people who are vaccinated increases.

“I still think we still need it in some areas, like METRO, because not everybody's vaccinated,” she said, adding that most people will give up mask wearing entirely now that another mandate has been lifted.

“They're not going to wear them, because they were waiting on this time for it to be over with. I think they're actually rushing it," she said.

But others said it was past time to eliminate the policy.

"If you're worried about it, get your vaccination, wear your mask. If you're not worried about it, that's fine too, you have the right not to be worried about it,” said fellow bus rider Ali Muhammad on Tuesday. “I do social distance though when I'm on the bus, but I am glad I don't have to wear the mask anymore."

Cameron Kurtz, who was returning to Phoenix from El Paso on Tuesday, said that COVID is likely here to stay so people need to get used to living with it.

“COVID is probably never going to go away so eventually (the mandates) will have to be lifted,” he told The Texas Newsroom. But he appreciated that some people are still apprehensive about it, so he was willing to compromise on his upcoming flight.

“I’ll probably leave (the mask) on, just until everyone else is comfortable. But it makes no difference to me,” he said.

The Biden administration said Tuesday that it would likely appeal the ruling if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determine facial coverings are still necessary to the public, NPR reported.

For travelers like Burchett however, the bigger concern isn’t about mask mandates. She’s focused on children like hers who are too young for a vaccine.

“I have all my vaccines and boosters but she’s too young for that. And she’s too young for a mask, so that makes me a little apprehensive,” she said.

Houston Public Media’s Lucio Vasquez contributed to this report

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