DALLAS — The federal requirement to wear face masks on airplanes and public transportation is scheduled to expire next week, and airline executives and Republican lawmakers are urging the Biden administration to let the mandate die.
The fate of the rule — and consideration of an alternate “framework” of moves to limit the spread of COVID-19 — was under discussion Monday within the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Officials described it as a close call.
“This is a decision that the CDC Director Dr. (Rochelle) Walensky is going to make,” White House coronavirus-policy adviser Dr. Ashish Jha said Monday. “I know the CDC is working on developing a scientific framework for how to answer that. We are going to see that framework come out I think in the next few days.”
Jha said that extending mask mandate again is “on the table.”
The administration gave the rule a one-month reprieve in March so that public-health officials would have time to develop alternative methods of limiting the transmission of COVID-19 during travel.
The mask mandate is the most visible vestige of government restrictions to control the pandemic, and possibly the most controversial. A surge of abusive and sometimes violent incidents on airplanes has been attributed mostly to disputes over mask-wearing.
Critics have seized on the fact that states have rolled back rules requiring masks in restaurants, stores and other indoor settings, and yet COVID-19 cases have fallen sharply since the omicron variant peaked in mid-January.
“The American people have seen through the false logic that COVID-19 only exists on airplanes and public transportation,” Republicans on the House and Senate transportation committees said Friday in a letter to the administration.
However, a recent uptick in cases could provide reason for the CDC to keep the mask rule a bit longer.
After a steep, two-month decline, the seven-day rolling U.S. average of new reported COVID-19 cases has turned slightly higher in recent days, although from relatively low levels.
Several prominent officials have contracted the virus, including the 82-year-old House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who tested positive for the virus last week after appearing – without a mask – at a White House event with President Joe Biden. Also last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo disclosed that they had tested positive after a gathering that was quickly dubbed a super-spreader event.
Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist at the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, believes that if the mandate is dropped, more air travelers and airline crew members will get sick. He said the CDC made a mistake by linking mask guidance to hospitalization rates because less-severe but highly transmissible variants can still kill large numbers of people.
“In public health we try to prevent crashes. Medicine is basically mechanics who try to fix cars after they have already crashed,” he said. “Do you say, ‘Oh, you don’t need to buckle your seat belt today, hospital beds are not full?’ Who does that?”
Airlines began requiring masks in 2020, months before the government mandate was issued days after President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Airlines faced financial ruin because of the pandemic, and the masks and other measures such as blocking middle seats were meant to reassure frightened passengers that flying was safe from the virus.
In December, the CEO of Southwest Airlines was forced to walk back a comment that masks didn’t do much to improve health safety in the cabin because planes have strong air filters.
Travelers have returned — the number of Americans getting on planes surged past 2 million a day in March — and airlines think they can sell plenty of seats without the mask rule.
“My flight attendants are begging us to stop this,” Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle said. “Every day it’s causing all of these incidents on board, and it’s frustrating and it’s dangerous. You’re asking a 24-year-old flight attendant to explain it to someone who is mad” about the rule.
Unions that represent flight attendants once supported the mask rule but are now neutral. Officials say their members are divided, which could explain why the two largest U.S. flight-attendant unions declined to comment on the issue this week.
Executives of 10 airlines including American, Delta, United and Southwest wrote to Biden last month, urging the White House to drop the mask rule and a requirement that international travelers test negative for COVID-19 before flying to the U.S. “Much has changed since these measures were imposed and they no longer make sense in the current public health context,” the executives said.
Airlines for America, a trade group representing those big airlines, and three other industry organizations made a similar appeal to Dr. Jha on Friday. They pointed to recent CDC guidance which found that the most Americans no longer need to wear masks indoors because hospitalization rates in their communities are relatively low.
Savanthi Syth, an airline analyst for Raymond James & Associates, said there are some people who will feel uncomfortable flying with fellow passengers who aren’t wearing masks, but there could be others who have avoided flying because they’re not comfortable wearing one for a long flight.
“I expect the vast majority of passengers and flight attendants will welcome the change (if the rule is dropped), given that it is consistent with most other areas of everyday life,” Syth said. She said any impact on travel demand will be small, and that airlines would get a much bigger boost from elimination of the testing requirement on inbound international travelers.
Chris Lopinto, co-founder of travel site ExpertFlyer.com, said that because of the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases, it might be wise to keep the mask mandate until cases subside again.
“I don’t think there would be a material effect on demand either way, considering airlines can barely keep up with the demand they already have,” he said.
Most congressional Democrats continue to support the mask mandate. A leading liberal, Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass, urged the CDC and the Transportation Security Administration to keep the rule in place, saying that the virus and variants remain a threat to seniors and people with weakened immune systems or disabilities.
The political calculus could be shifting, however. Last month, eight Democrats broke with the White House and joined Senate Republicans in a symbolic vote against the mask mandate. Four of those Democrats face difficult re-election races in November, and the party is unlikely to keep control of the Senate if any of them lose.