The end of plane masking feels memorable

Updated at 6:50 PM ET on April 20, 2022

If you traveled to work on a bus, train or subway today, you probably saw more mouths and noses than usual. On Monday, a federal judge appointed by Trump overturned a CDC rule that mandated masks on all U.S. transportation networks, including airports and airplanes. Airline passengers who were mid-flight when the news broke cheered and ripped off their masksthrow them away in garbage bags that unmasked flight attendants helpfully brought down the aisle.

In recent months, vaccine requirements in restaurants, mask mandates in schools and retail spaces, and employee testing requirements have all been rolled back. But the end of aircraft masking in particular has sparked a disproportionate response – from both extreme relief and utter indignation† One pilot reportedly called the end of the mandate “the most important announcement I have ever made.” An emergency room doctor wondered how “people who claim to love kids are totally cool” with babies dying from covid. Why is this rollback so different from all other rollbacks?

In some ways, the transport masking rules should matter less for public health than other masking mandates, no more. Most people who don’t work in transportation probably spend relatively little time in train stations, buses and jetways, compared to workplaces, where mask requirements are already scarce. Joseph Allen, who leads Harvard’s Healthy Buildings program, told me that ventilation is generally better in trains and airplanes than in restaurants, offices, and homes. (That’s only true as long as the HVAC system is actually turned on, which is usually not the case when an airplane is on the tarmac.) In buses, ventilation depends on whether the driver has the vehicle in air recirculation mode. “There has been too much focus on the risks in airplanes for a long time,” Allen said. “Airplanes are not where super dispersion takes place.”

In the broadest sense of the word, lifting the transport network’s mandate is unlikely to have a huge short-term impact on the trajectory of the pandemic. Even if mask compliance on subways and buses were to suddenly drop to, say, 10 percent in a major U.S. city, any increase in the number of cases or hospitalizations “would likely be small — so small that they would be undetectable by our current surveillance systems,” David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, told me.

Whether masks on buses control the spread of the community has other benefits. “To me, the mask mandate is not just a tool to control transmission, but rather a tool that makes our essential spaces safer and more accessible for everyone,” said Anne Sosin, a public health researcher at Dartmouth. People who are at risk because they are very old, or who benefit less from the vaccines because they are immunocompromised, or who have small children, can generally avoid bars and concert halls if they want to. Buses and subways are much harder to avoid. Black and Hispanic Americans, who have fallen ill and died more often than their white peers during the pandemic, are more likely to use public transportation — and more likely to support mask mandates there.

All the experts I spoke to said that the change in policy itself was less important than how that change was implemented. Other pandemic restrictions have generally been dropped or revoked by the same authorities that put them in place. The mandate for a public transit mask was enforced by the CDC and revoked by a federal judge in Tampa, Florida. The Justice Department today appealed the ruling, but if it loses, especially if the case goes to the Supreme Court, the federal government’s ability to impose restrictions could be limited well beyond this summer. “If something unpredictable happens after that, where we need CDC to give mandates, that authority is at stake,” Allen said. That can be especially dangerous if the country is dealing with a new strain or a new pathogen spreading to new areas via interstate travel.

The rollback of the transportation network’s mandate also feels different, as it was one of the very last, broad restrictions still in effect. During the pandemic, public health experts have touted a Swiss cheese approach to protection: No approach is perfect, be it masking, vaccination or social distancing; but layering them all will cover the holes. Each restriction that is pulled is another piece of cheese gone, another way the population becomes more vulnerable. Now that we no longer have masks on planes, trains and buses, we are almost dairy free.

Until this week, transportation hubs were the only place many Americans had to be masked. A handful of regional transportation companies, including in New York City and Portland, Oregon, still require their riders to cover up. But in communities across the country, Americans face few, if any, pandemic restrictions. A vaccination requirement for federal employees remains. But other than that, Sosin said, “this is the last domino to fall.”

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