Masks stay on: CDC keeps the mandate on planes
By Heather Murphy
Despite great pressure from airlines, the hospitality industry and Republican lawmakers to lift the rule requiring masks on planes and other public transportation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended the federal transportation mask requirement for two weeks Wednesday, five days before it was set to expire. The mask mandate now expires May 3, if it is not extended yet again.
Dr. Ashish Jha, the new White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said that the additional time will allow the CDC to assess whether BA.2, a subvariant of the coronavirus, is going to become a “ripple or a wave” in the United States. The CDC will use that information to determine whether the mandate should be extended further, he said.
“If the infection numbers are relatively low, as they are right now, then I think it’s reasonable to remove mask mandates,” he said, emphasizing that it’s a CDC decision.
In a statement announcing the extension of the divisive rule, the CDC said BA.2 now makes up more than 85% of new U.S. virus cases.
“Since early April, there have been increases in the 7-day moving average of cases in the U.S.,” the agency said. “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.”
In recent days, new U.S. cases have started ticking up again. As of Tuesday, the nation was reporting more than 31,000 new cases a day on average, 8% more than two weeks earlier, according to a New York Times database, although the case counts have not approached the peak seen in the winter omicron surge. Reported cases may be an undercount of the virus’s true spread to some degree, since access to at-home tests has increased and the results of such tests are often not officially reported.
It’s not yet clear how severe the impact of these cases will be, Jha said, noting that BA.2 has caused far more hospitalizations and deaths in the United Kingdom than it has in Israel, two countries where it appeared earlier than in the U.S. and where it spread widely.
“So the question is which path is America going to follow; will it follow the U.K. path or the Israeli path?” he asked.
In recent months, airlines and the hospitality industry have been lobbying the White House to overturn both the mask rule and the requirement to test before returning to the U.S. from abroad. In one of the most recent letters, dated April 8, Airlines for America, an industry group representing eight airlines; the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group representing more than 1,000 public and private organizations catering to business and leisure travelers; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobbying group; and the American Hotel and Lodging Association, which represents thousands of hotels, sent a letter to Jha, arguing that what they see as unnecessary measures were hurting the country economically.
“While the public health benefits of these policies have greatly diminished, the economic costs associated with maintaining these measures are significant,” they wrote.
On Wednesday, shortly before the CDC announcement, Airlines for America sent yet another letter to Walensky pushing for a detailed explanation of why masks are still necessary on planes.
“It is very difficult to understand why masks are still required on airplanes, but not needed in crowded bars and restaurants; in packed sports arenas; in schools full of children; or at large indoor political gatherings,” Nicholas Calio, the president of the group, wrote.
But airlines are unlike virtually all other indoor settings, said David Freedman, the president-elect of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, because you can’t easily leave.
“The difference with other indoor settings is that on an airplane you are trapped until the end of the flight or until everyone disembarks,” he said.
Jha made a similar point.
“If that person sitting next to you is coughing and clearly infected, you can’t get up and move,” he said, adding, “even if they have the best ventilation, you will not be fully protected.”
Opponents of the mask mandate often point to the advanced ventilation systems on airplanes, saying they practically eliminate the risk of transmission.
“It’s low, but there is no zero-risk situation on an airplane,” said Dr. Aisha Khatib, the chair of a group focused on responsible travel for the International Society of Travel Medicine, adding that the risk goes up in a surge situation and while getting on and off planes if the ventilation system is not on. “Masks will definitely decrease your risk of transmission,” she said.
Canada, where Khatib lives, is grappling with a similar situation, she said. Masks are still required on airplanes and in airports there, but as an expiration date approaches for Canada’s mask mandate, cases have been rising in some parts of the country.
By many accounts, enforcement has been one of the most challenging aspects of the mask mandate in the U.S., with many passengers verbally and even physically assaulting flight attendants who reminded them to cover their nose and mouth. In 2021, more than 4,000 mask-related incidents were reported to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Before the decision, major unions representing flight attendants and Transportation Security Administration employees, two groups that have to deal with enforcing the rule, declined to take a stance.
“Whatever the agency puts in place, we have to comply with it,” Hydrick Thomas, the president of the union that represents TSA employees, said Tuesday. He added that he believes that masks protect his employees, their families and “the flying public.”
The extension provoked applause from some travelers and commuters, with some arguing that it should remain in place even longer.
“The CDC is extending the mask mandate for public transport for two weeks,” Dr. Lucky Tran, a scientist and activist who was one of the organizers of the March for Science in 2017, wrote on Twitter. “That’s not enough. Millions rely on public transportation every day to get to work or access essential services. While we are in a pandemic, we need mask mandates to keep society open and accessible to all.”
Ari Fleischer, a media consultant who served as a White House spokesperson for President George W. Bush, was among the many who took an opposite stance on the same platform.
“This is absurd,” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “Either there is a public health threat requiring all citizens to wear masks everywhere, or there’s not.”