Mask Mandates Forever?

Of all the catastrophic decisions that governments made in response to the Wuhan epidemic, mask mandates were the most mind-numbingly foolish. And they weren’t harmless, either: we will be seeing the effects on today’s children for many years to come.

As the midterm elections draw closer, mask mandates, along with other covid infringements, have been abandoned almost everywhere. Apart from the fact that children are still forced to wear masks in some schools–a crime, in my opinion–there are two major exceptions. The first is medical facilities. I had an operation this morning (reconstruction of an Achilles tendon) and thus had to don a mask for some hours. But I am willing to cut those folks some slack, if only because I hardly ever set foot in clinics or hospitals.

The second exception is airplanes and airports. By federal executive order, masks are required in airports and on airplanes, and flight attendants (on Delta, at least) begin each flight by absurdly instructing passengers to replace their masks between sips and bites.

Is there some reason why covid is particularly threatening on airplanes? Are airplanes, with their air filtration systems, somehow more conducive to spreading disease than other environments, like stadiums, concert venues, bars and restaurants? No rational explanation of that theory has been forthcoming, but Joe Biden recently extended the order requiring masks through April.

I flew to Phoenix a few days ago, and on the outbound flight the captain came out of the cockpit just before takeoff to greet the passengers. He thanked us for flying Delta (more or less mandatory if you fly out of the Twin Cities) and also thanked us for going along with the mask rule. He noted that the crew has to do it too, and concluded by saying that he hopes the mandate will expire in a few weeks, a wish that I am sure was shared by more or less all of the passengers.

The airlines can’t like being one of the last bastions of masking, and finally they are doing something about it. On Wednesday, the CEOs of United, American, Delta, Southwest, FedEx and other airlines wrote an open letter to Joe Biden, requesting that covid regulations unique to air travel be lifted. The letter is embedded below; here are some excerpts:

[M]uch has changed since these measures were imposed and they no longer make sense in the current public health context. The persistent and steady decline of hospitalization and death rates are the most compelling indicators that our country is well protected against severe disease from COVID-19. Given that we have entered a different phase of dealing with this virus, we strongly support your view that “COVID-19 need no longer control our lives.” Now is the time for the Administration to sunset federal transportation travel restrictions – including the international predeparture testing requirement and the federal mask mandate – that are no longer aligned with the realities of the current epidemiological environment.
The predeparture test requirement, imposed to slow the introduction of variants into the U.S., has outlived its utility and stymies the return of international travel. The United Kingdom (UK), the European Union and Canada have recognized this reality and lifted travel restrictions. The U.S. inconsistency with these practices creates a competitive disadvantage for U.S. travel and tourism by placing an additional cost and burden on travel to the U.S. Further, many outbound travelers are not willing to risk being stranded overseas.
The science clearly supports lifting the mask mandate, as demonstrated by the recently released CDC framework indicating that 99 percent of the U.S. population no longer need to wear masks indoors. Several studies completed before we had the added layer of widespread availability of vaccines, including one from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health3 and another from the U.S. Department of Defense4, have concluded that an airplane cabin is one of the safest indoor environments due to the combination of highly filtered air and constant air flow coupled with the downward direction of the air. Lifting the mask mandate in airports and onboard aircraft can be done safely as England has done. Importantly, the effectiveness and availability of high-quality masks for those who wish to wear them gives passengers the ability to further protect themselves if they choose to do so.

The airline CEOs emphasize this point, too:

It is critical to recognize that the burden of enforcing both the mask and predeparture testing requirements has fallen on our employees for two years now. This is not a function they are trained to perform and subjects them to daily challenges by frustrated customers.

This is true. There are a few mask Nazis in the ranks of flight attendants, but most are appropriately casual about enforcing the mandate. On the other hand, when passengers openly refuse to wear masks, difficult situations are created. I have experienced delays in takeoff on a couple of occasions when there was an argument between flight crew and one or more passengers who wouldn’t don masks. In one instance, passengers ultimately were escorted off the plane. These tense situations benefit no one. They also represent the merest tip of the iceberg when it comes to travelers’ frustration with irrational covid rules.

Let’s hope the airlines have enough clout with the Biden administration to bring this foolishness to an end, once and for all. Here is the letter:

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