Mask mandate for airlines and trains: will it end or be extended?

The federal requirement to wear face masks on airplanes and public transportation is scheduled to expire on April 18, and airlines and Republican lawmakers urge the Biden administration to let the mandate dieBut a Biden official said extending the mandate is still a possibility.

The fate of the rule – and the consideration of an alternative “framework” of movements around the spread of COVID-19 – was under discussion Monday within the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Officials described it as a narrow call.

“This is a decision that CDC Director Dr. (Rochelle) Walensky will take,” White House Coronavirus Policy Advisor Dr. Ashish Jha said Monday. “I know the CDC is working on developing a scientific framework for how you can answer that. We will see that framework come out I think in the coming days.”

Mask rule extension “on the table”

Jha said that re-expanding mask mandate is “on the table”.

The administration gave the rule in March a one-month proposal to give public health officials time to develop alternative methods to limit the transmission of COVID-19 while traveling.

De mask mandate is the most visible remnant of government restrictions to control the pandemic, and possibly the most controversial. An increase of offensive and sometimes violent incidents on airplanes is mostly attributed to disputes over mask-wearing.

Airlines have reported 1,081 unrestricted passenger incidents so far in 2022, according to the FAA. About 700 of those incidents involved face masks, the agency said.

Critics have seized on the fact that states have repealed rules requiring masks in restaurants, shops and other indoor environments, and yet COVID-19 cases have fallen sharply since the Omicron variant reached a peak in mid-January.

“The American people have seen through the false logic that COVID-19 exists only on airplanes and public transportation,” Republicans said in House and Senate transportation committees Friday in a letter to the administration.

And the CEOs of nearly a dozen airlines, including American, Delta, JetBlue and United, sent a letter to the White House urging the Biden administration to forget COVID era flight safety precautions, including the mask rule plus a requirement that international travelers test negative for COVID-19 before flying to the US

“It makes no sense that people are still required to wear masks on planes, but are still allowed to collect in overcrowded restaurants, schools and at sporting events without masks, despite none of these places having the protective air filtration system that planes do,” he said. administrators wrote.

MoneyWatch: Airline CEOs press to drop COVID-19 protocols


Recent COVID-19 surge

However, a recent rise in cases could give reason for the CDC to keep the mask rule a bit longer.

After a steep decline of two months, the seven-day rolling average of newly reported COVID-19 cases has risen slightly in recent days, albeit at relatively low levels.

Several prominent officials have recently contracted the virus, including 82-year-old House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, who last week tested positive for the virus after appearing – without a mask – at a White House event with President Joe Biden. Also last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo revealed that they had tested positive after a meeting that was quickly called a super-spreader event.

Rising case numbers have also prompted the city ​​of Philadelphiaand a handful of colleges and universities to re-establish mask mandates for the foreseeable future.

Airlines began requiring masks in 2020, months before the government mandate was issued following the inauguration of President Joe Biden. At the time, airlines were facing financial ruin due to the pandemic, and the masks and other measures such as blocking middle seats were meant to reassure frightened passengers that flying was safe.

In December, the CEO of Southwest Airlines was forced to return a remark that masks did not do much to improve the health safety in the cabin because planes have strong air filters.

Travelers have returned – the number of Americans boarding planes rose more than 2 million a day in March – and airlines think they can sell a lot of seats without the mask rule.

“My flight attendant is begging us to stop this,” said Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle. “Every day it causes all these incidents on board, and it’s frustrating and it’s dangerous. You ask a 24-year-old stewardess to explain it to someone who’s crazy” about the rule.

Trade unions representing stewardesses once supported the mask rule, but are now neutral. Union officials say their members are divided.

Airlines for America, a trade group representing those major airlines, and three other industry organizations made a similar appeal to Drs. Jha on Friday. They pointed to recent CDC guidance that found that most Americans no longer have to wear masks because hospitalization rates in their communities are relatively low.

Could the fall of the mandate backfire?

Public health and business interests are more aligned than some business leaders make them out to be, according to experts.

And falling mask rules can come back in more ways than one when unrestricted and elderly passengers find flying without masks a risky activity.

In addition, if more crew members are exposed to the virus, become ill and are unable to work, airlines may face significant schedule disruptions.

For example, Swiss carrier EasyJet had to cancel hundreds of flights after it dropped its mask mandate, with indications of higher than normal levels of staff sickness due to COVID-19.

Savanthi Syth, an airlines analyst for Raymond James & Associates, said there are some people who will feel uncomfortable flying with other passengers who are not wearing masks, but there may be others who ‘ t have avoided flying because they are not comfortable carrying one on a long flight.

“I expect the vast majority of passengers and stewardess will welcome the change (if the rule is dropped), given that it matches most other areas of daily life,” Syth said. She said any impact on travel demand would be small, and that airlines would get a much bigger boost from eliminating the test requirement on incoming international travelers.

Chris Lopinto, co-founder of travel site, said that because of the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases, it may be prudent to keep the mask mandate until cases disappear again.

“I do not think there would be a material effect on demand in either way, given the airlines can barely keep up with the demand they already have,” he said.

Most Congress Democrats continue to support the mask mandate. A leading liberal, Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, urged the CDC and the Transportation Security Administration to keep the rule in place, saying the virus and variants remain a threat to seniors and people with weakened immune systems as a barrier.

However, the political calculus could shift. Last month, eight Democrats broke with the White House and joined the Republican Senate in a symbolic vote against the masked mandate. Four of those Democrats are facing tough election races in November, and it is unlikely the party will retain control of the Senate if one of them loses.

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