President Biden is vowing to veto the repeal of mask mandates on public transportation and airplanes, which Senators voted for by a big 57-to-40 margin yesterday. But does the mask mandate make any sense, much less warrant picking a fight with Congress over?
As Jacob Sullum notes, there is less COVID transmission on airplanes than in other settings where the government doesn’t try to force the wearing of masks:
The federal rule that requires air travelers to wear face masks, which the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) first imposed more than a year ago, was scheduled to expire this Friday. But the TSA extended the requirement for at least another month, for reasons that are even harder to understand than the original rationale for the mask mandate.
That is saying a lot, because the scientific justification for the TSA’s rule has always been weak, given that the conditions on airplanes are not conducive to COVID-19 transmission. The ventilation systems on commercial aircraft, which mix outdoor air with air recycled through HEPA filters and limit airflow between rows, help explain why there were few outbreaks associated with commercial flights even before vaccines were available.
“The risk of contracting COVID-19 during air travel is low,” The Journal of the American Medical Association noted last year. “Despite substantial numbers of travelers, the number of suspected and confirmed cases of in-flight COVID-19 transmission between passengers around the world appears small.” As Sebastian Hoehl, a researcher at the Institute for Medical Virology, told Scientific American, “An airplane cabin is probably one of the most secure conditions you can be in.”
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly echoed that observation at a Senate hearing last year, saying “masks don’t add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment…It is very safe and very high quality compared to any other indoor setting.” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker similarly said, “An aircraft is the safest place you can be. It’s true of all of our aircraft—they all have the same HEPA filters and airflow.”
In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stopped recommending indoor masking in parts of America it classifies as “low” or “medium” risk, which as of last week covered 98 percent of America’s population. So according to the CDC, it’s safe to not wear masks in stores, churches, schools, bars, and restaurants—settings where the risk of virus transmission is higher than on airplanes.
But the TSA said it extended its mask rule “at CDC’s recommendation” so TSA could come up with “a revised policy framework” reflecting “the latest science.”
As Sullum notes,
The TSA’s mask mandate has predictably led to much unpleasantness, driving a surge in disputes between travelers and flight attendants. For every obnoxious passenger who moons, berates, or assaults the mandate’s enforcers, there are many others who quietly resent this thinly justified imposition, especially when it compels them to force masks on recalcitrant toddlers.
That expectation is especially difficult to justify, since the risk to children from COVID-19 is infinitesimal even if they are not vaccinated—smaller than the risk of dying in a car crash if their parents decide to avoid mask hassles by driving instead of flying. Adult travelers, meanwhile, can protect themselves by getting vaccinated and, if they are especially cautious, by wearing high-quality, well-fitting masks, regardless of what everyone else is doing.
Yet, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) asked the TSA to retain the mask rule. Sullum says the “AFA’s enthusiasm for hygiene theater is of a piece with its enthusiasm for security theater: Back in 2005, when the TSA began letting passengers carry small scissors and short screwdrivers, the union warned that ‘the aisles will be running with blood.’ In that case, calmer heads prevailed. But more than two decades after 9/11, U.S. travelers are still saddled with myriad nonsensical restrictions. The mask rule is just the latest example.”