When Can I Use Public Transportation Again After Being Fully Vaccinated?

Woman on public transportation wearing a mask.

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Key Takeaways

  • COVID-19 transmission in public transportation appears to be low due to mask-wearing requirements, enhanced airflow from ventilation systems, and minimal talking between passengers.
  • When using public transportation, remember to avoid crowds and high-touch surfaces, and wear a mask.
  • Experts say returning to public transportation, fully vaccinated or not, is likely safe with COVID-19 safety precautions in mind.

With the onset of the pandemic, many Americans stopped or limited their use of public transportation in favor of different, more distanced modes of travel. Now, as more and more people get vaccinated every day, a safe return to public transportation might be more feasible than we realize.

“The safety of each mode [of transportation] is dependent on how disease control measurements are implemented by the transit agency and the extent to which they are followed by staff and passengers," Krystal Pollitt, PhD, PEng, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the Yale School of Public Health in Connecticut, tells Verywell. "On buses, subways, and trains, it is important that face masks are worn, spaces are not overcrowded, and there is good ventilation."

Once you've been fully vaccinated, it can be difficult to navigate life in public spaces again, so we asked experts to weigh in on the risks of taking public transportation, as well as the safety measures you should implement if you decide to ride.

You're considered fully vaccinated two weeks after your second dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines or two weeks after your single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.

COVID-19 Transmission on Public Transit

On the surface, with strangers gathering together in an enclosed space, it appears that public transportation would be a major source of COVID-19 spread, but transmission seems to be low, according to Richard C. Wender, MD, chair of family medicine and community health at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

One study analyzed public transit ridership in comparison with the rise or fall of COVID-19 cases and found no direct correlation between the use of public transportation and the transmission of COVID-19. It may be a result of a number of factors like:

  • Mask-wearing requirements
  • Enhanced airflow from ventilation systems
  • Safety practices of transit systems, such as maintaining space between seats and cleaning surfaces frequently
  • Relatively short trips
  • Minimal talking between passengers

“Risk of COVID transmission depends on several factors including how close people are together, airflow, whether they are wearing masks, and the variant type, as some of the new variants are more transmissible,” Gypsyamber D’Souza, PhD, MS, MPH, a professor from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Department of Epidemiology in Maryland, tells Verywell. “In many public transportation settings there is no physical distancing, but if people are wearing masks and there is good air circulation, risk can remain low.”

What This Means For You

The chance of COVID-19 transmission in public transit may be low, especially if you're fully vaccinated, but it's not zero. If you use public transportation again, it's important to continue taking safety precautions such as wearing masks, maintaining physical distance as much as possible, and avoiding high-touch surfaces.

Safety Measures When Using Public Transportation

“If you need public transport, use it with precautions,” Wender tells Verywell. These are several safety measures you should keep in mind when using different modes of public transportation.

Wear Face Masks

“It is critical that people still take precautions such as wearing masks when not able to physically distance,” D’Souza says. As of February, the wearing of face masks is required when boarding, traveling on, or disembarking from modes of public transportation such as airplanes, ships, ferries, trains, subways, buses, taxis, and ride-shares.

“It is also important to minimize leaks around the mask and face and select a mask that has a high filtration efficiency, [like a] multiple layer mask,” Pollitt says. Wender echoes this sentiment and recommends double masking on public transportation, which involves wearing a cloth mask over a medical procedure mask. 

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, double masking and knotting the ear loops of a medical procedure mask can significantly improve mask performance and reduce virus transmission.

Although you're not required to wear a mask if you're briefly eating or drinking, it’s best to reserve those activities for when you’re not inside a public vehicle so you can avoid taking off your mask.

Avoid Crowds if You Can

“Change your schedule a bit so you can find less busy times to travel if at all possible,” Wender says. There’s no definite answer on whether one mode of transportation is safer than the other. But keep in mind that shorter trips are better than longer ones, and transportation with less crowding is better, he adds.

For example, buses can be risky because there are fewer seating options, while an empty subway car may provide adequate space for social distancing.

The CDC recommends putting a few rows of seats between you and other passengers if possible. Visual guides that indicate where to stand or sit, such as floor decals and other instructions, can also help you be mindful of physical distancing guidelines.

Refrain From Touching Surfaces

Limit contact with the high-touch surfaces of public transit, such as kiosks, handrails, touchscreens, and doors, and use cashless payments. If you can’t avoid it, remember to practice proper hand hygiene such as washing your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water or applying an alcohol-based sanitizer. You can also carry disinfectant wipes with you, Wender says. 

Return to Public Transit

Because public transportation use has declined, it may be quite safe to return to public transit again, according to Wender, since spaces likely won't be crowded. “Remember that the greater risk comes from thinking you’re safe when you’re not,” he says. “You’re more likely to get infected from people you know than strangers on transit.”

However, using public transportation again greatly depends on each individual’s comfort levels. While some people may already feel at ease going out in public, others may not feel the same way. Varying risk perception, the likelihood of getting severely ill from COVID-19, sharing space with at-risk individuals, vaccination status, having a private vehicle, and other factors may come into play in making this decision. 

“Given current progress on vaccination, it is hopeful that this summer we will [see] substantial reductions in infection—but we need the majority of all Americans to be vaccinated before we will begin to see this ‘herd protection,'" D'Souza says. Someone who is fully vaccinated may feel comfortable taking public transportation, but until infection rates are lower, unvaccinated individuals should try to avoid crowded areas, she adds.

“If you can wait until you’re vaccinated, all the better,” Wender says. “The emergence of variants and the rising rates in most states are worrisome. If you’ve not been vaccinated and you have a choice to use a different mode of transportation, for now, I would continue to do so.”

Should you choose to use public transit again, It’s important to follow public health recommendations at all times.

“Public health disease control measurements increase the safety of public transit. If all passengers continue wearing masks, practice good hand hygiene, and are able to [do] physical distancing, the risk of COVID-19 infection can be lowered,” Pollitt says. “Public transportation can and should be used by everyone—vaccinated or not—but it is critical public health recommendations for infection disease control are followed.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Carla Delgado
Carla M. Delgado is a health and culture writer based in the Philippines.