PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — For the first time in two years, commuters and travelers have a choice whether to mask up or not.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently extended the mask mandate for public transportation until May 3, but a federal judge in Florida voided the decision this past Monday. As a result, the requirement was dropped on virtually all forms of transportation: major airlines, Amtrak trains, city buses and Uber vehicles.

But, like the CDC, a local expert is still recommending that people wear masks in these situations, saying it’s too soon to fully let our guard down.

Dr. Leonard Mermel, Lifespan’s director of epidemiology and infection prevention, called U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle’s decision to overrule the CDC concerning.

“Overruled by an individual without a robust background in the epidemiology of respiratory viral pandemics,” he said Wednesday. “I still will use respiratory protection and recommend it at the present time.”

Mermel said it’s especially important to keep wearing masks on planes and trains, where windows can’t be opened to increase air flow.

“That HEPA filtration really isn’t going to do much for someone in close proximity,” Mermel explained. “It will help if someone is far away, but not close proximity.”

The CDC had extended the mandate due to rising cases from the omicron BA.2 subvariant, which is said to be the most prominent variant in the country right now.

Mermel said it’s crucial for Americans not to let COVID fatigue set in, since new variants are still forming and could lead to more infections.

“[The virus] continues to gain strength with regards to being transmitted more easily from person to person,” he said. “And then, in the face of that, we’re saying you can stop masking if you’re sitting next to someone for a minute, hours, or longer.”

Data from the R.I. Department of Health shows the state has seen a moderate increase in cases over the past couple weeks. In fact, last Friday, the risk level for four of the five counties was raised to “medium” because their infection rates surpassed 200 new cases per 100,000 people over the previous seven days.

The risk levels are updated every Friday.

The Health Department reported 261 new positive cases and no additional deaths on Wednesday, while COVID-19 hospitalizations increased to 71, with three patients in the ICU and four on ventilators.

Earlier on Wednesday, Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken told 12 News the agency has stopped reporting percent positive data, since it’s a much less meaningful metric now that the state is no longer overseeing the majority of testing.

“As part of Rhode Island’s shift toward an endemic response to COVID-19, much more testing is happening in traditional health care settings, and at-home tests have become the option of choice for many Rhode Islanders,” he said. “Because these tests do not all get reported to the state, our percent positive data is now much harder to interpret.”

Wendelken also noted that the state-run sites are focused on testing people experiencing symptoms, which skews the statistics when compared to prior points in the pandemic when more routine testing of asymptomatic individuals was being done.