When the US federal government’s mandate requiring masks on transportation was lifted this week, reports of celebration ensued.
When Maureen Miller, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, heard the news, she had a very different reaction. She was “horrified”.
“We’re basically ensuring that infectious and susceptible people are together for a chunk of time, with no protection at all,” she said.
Public health experts like Miller have widely criticized the removal of the federal travel mask mandate, a contrast to the jubilant stance airlines and some passengers have taken to the news. The dissonance in reactions adds to the confusion over how to behave as the pandemic continues. People are now left to weigh how much risk they want to take – and how much of a risk they want to be to other people – when they travel on planes, buses and trains. The thought is troubling to some who have been studying the pandemic.
“I don’t think individual responsibility can solve the epidemic,” said Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician and researcher at Stanford University.
Karan noted that wastewater surveillance testing – which is increasingly being used as official reporting of cases becomes less reliable – has indicated a rise in cases as the BA.2 Omicron subvariant continues to spread.
“This is not the time to be pulling back on mitigation measures in shared public indoor spaces,” Karan said. “The problem is that everyone’s coming together, and they’re dispersing to different places. You’re potentially seeding outbreaks to different areas.”
The potential for outbreaks is what drove the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to delay on 13 April the end of the transportation mask mandate by two weeks, from 18 April to 3 May. The agency said it wanted to assess the rise in cases that have been attributed to the spread of the BA.2 Omicron subvariant before it lifted the mandate.
“Since early April, there have been increases in the 7-day moving average of cases in the US,” the CDC said in a statement at the time. “In order to assess the potential impact the rise of cases has on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and health care system capacity, the CDC order will remain in place at this time.”
But then a US district court judge in Florida on 18 April struck down the extension, saying that the agency overstepped its authority. Cue the videos of mask-less people cheering on planes.
On Wednesday, the justice department said it was filing an appeal seeking to overturn the judge’s ruling, leaving it unclear whether the mandate will be lifted permanently. In a statement, the CDC said it is still studying the potential of another wave and still recommends that people wear masks “in all indoor public transportation settings”.
Miller said she was concerned about what message the lifting of the mandate is giving to Americans.
“The federal travel mandate removal is the final push over the edge that tells the population you don’t have to worry about this any more, it’s under control,” she said.
The travel industry had been particularly eager for the mandate to end, with airlines lobbying to have the mandate lifted over the last few weeks. Earlier this month, the trade group Airlines for America sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services saying the “public health environment” had changed and that “science and research … clearly support lifting the mask mandate”.
All major airlines quickly dropped their mask policies once the mandate was lifted. Delta Air Lines went so far as to release a statement that said the company was “relieved” about the mandate’s end “as Covid-19 has transitioned to an ordinary seasonal virus”. After backlash on that phrasing, the airlines updated the statement, calling Covid “a more manageable respiratory virus”.
For many employees of airlines, the problem with face masks did not come from following the mandate itself, but dealing with angry customers who refused to wear masks. A survey from the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) found a rise in the number of flight attendants who had to deal with unruly passengers. One in five had experienced physical incidents, while 85% had to deal with unruly passengers in 2021. The Federal Aviation Administration reported that investigations into unruly passengers spiked during the pandemic, largely because of issues with mask compliance.
“They don’t like being policemen on airplanes,” David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue and CEO of Breeze Airways, told the New York Times.
In a statement released after the mask mandate was lifted, Sara Nelson, president of the AFA noted the trouble flight attendants had with enforcing mandates.
“During this pandemic, flight attendants have dealt with constant disruptions in our workplaces, including harassment and violence at a level never seen before,” she said. “We urge the government, all airlines and airports to work urgently on consistent, clear messaging on the new policy, the recommendations to keep everyone safe and the expectation of mutual respect and calm in our airports and planes.”
To the dismay of union leaders, including Nelson, some airlines – American, United and Delta – said they will allow passengers who were banned from flying for refusing to wear masks to fly with them again.
“We have talked to them individually,” Scott Kirby, United CEO, told NBC. “Many of them assure that now that the mask mandate is off, everything is going to be fine, and I trust that the vast majority of them will [be].”
While airlines are happily getting their passengers back onboard, what the lifting of the mandate will mean for the pandemic is unclear.
Some public health experts have expressed concern over the uncertainty of the effects of long Covid, even in those who initially had mild cases of the virus. Karan recalls getting Covid in January and being out sick for 10 days. He had ongoing symptoms for weeks.
“I don’t want to get infected again. I just don’t want to continue to be reinfected with every wave, and I’ve been advising people not to take that lightly,” he said.
“[The judge’s decision] is really obstructive to the public health effort right now. We may see consequences of that. We may have more population immunity from day one than we suspected, we have vaccinations, but we just don’t know. It’s a lot of uncertainty right now.”