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

The federal requirement to wear face masks on planes and public transportation is due to expire on April 18, and airline executives and Republican lawmakers urge Biden administration to let mandate die. But a Biden official said extending the term was still a possibility.

The fate of the rule – and consideration of an alternative ‘framework’ of measures to limit the spread of COVID-19[feminine] – was under discussion on Monday at the United States Centers for Disease Control. Officials described it as a close call.

“It’s a decision that CDC director Dr. (Rochelle) Walensky is going to make,” Dr. Ashish Jha, White House coronavirus policy adviser said Monday. “I know the CDC is working on developing a scientific framework for how to respond to this. We’re going to see that framework come out, I think, in the next few days.”

Mask rule extension “on the table”

Jha said extending the mask mandate is “on the table” again.

The administration granted the rule a one-month reprieve in March to give public health officials time to develop alternative methods to limit COVID-19 transmission during travel.

the mask mandate is the most visible remnant of government restrictions to control the pandemic, and perhaps the most controversial. A push of abusive and sometimes violent incidents on airplanes has been primarily attributed to disputes over mask-wearing.

Airlines have reported 1,081 unruly 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 rolled back rules requiring masks in restaurants, stores and other indoor settings, 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 House. ‘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 get rid of The COVID era flight safety precautions, including the mask rule and the requirement that international travelers test negative for COVID-19 before flying to the United States

“It makes no sense that people are still required to wear masks on planes, but are allowed to congregate in crowded restaurants, schools and at sporting events without masks, although no of these places does not have the system of protection of the filtration of the air that the planes do”, wrote the leaders.

MoneyWatch: Airline CEOs push to drop COVID-19 protocols


Recent outbreak of COVID-19

However, a recent increase in the number of cases could prompt the CDC to keep the mask rule a little longer.

After a sharp two-month decline, the U.S. seven-day rolling average of newly reported COVID-19 cases has edged up in recent days, albeit from relatively low levels.

Several prominent officials have recently contracted the virus, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., 82, who tested positive for the virus last week after appearing — without a mask — at an event at the White House with President Joe Biden. Also last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo revealed they had tested positive after a rally that was quickly labeled a superspreader event.

The increase in the number of cases has also prompted the city ​​of philadelphiaand a handful of colleges and universities to reinstate 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 in financial ruin because of the pandemic, and masks and other measures such as blocking middle seats were intended to reassure frightened passengers that flying was safe.

In December, the CEO of Southwest Airlines was forced to backtrack on a comment that masks did little to improve cabin health safety because planes had powerful air filters.

Travelers have returned – the number of Americans boarding planes topped 2 million a day in March – and airlines believe 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 causes all these incidents on board, and it’s frustrating and dangerous. You’re asking a 24-year-old flight attendant to explain it to someone who’s crazy” about the rule.

Unions that represent flight attendants once supported the mask rule but are now neutral. Union officials say their members are divided.

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

Could the abandonment of the mandate turn against you?

Public health and commercial interests are more aligned than some business leaders claim, experts say.

And dropping mask rules could backfire in more ways than one if immunocompromised and elderly passengers find flying without a mask too risky.

Additionally, if more crew members are exposed to the virus, fall ill and cannot report to work, airlines could face significant schedule disruptions.

For example, the Swiss carrier EasyJet had to cancel hundreds of flights after dropping its mask mandate, citing higher than usual levels of staff illness due to COVID-19.

Savanthi Syth, airline analyst for Raymond James & Associates, said some people would feel uncomfortable flying with other passengers who are not wearing masks, but there could be others who have avoided flying because they are not comfortable wearing one for a long flight.

“I expect the vast majority of passengers and flight attendants to welcome the change (if the rule is scrapped) given that it is consistent with most other areas of daily life,” said said Syth. She said any impact on travel demand would be small and airlines would get a much bigger boost from the elimination of the testing requirement for inbound international travellers.

Chris Lopinto, co-founder of travel site, said that due to the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, it might be a good idea to keep the mask mandate on until the cases go away. new.

“I don’t think there would be a significant effect on demand anyway, given that airlines can barely meet the demand they already have,” he said.

Most congressional Democrats continue to support the mask mandate. A leading liberal, Senator Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, urged the CDC and the Transportation Security Administration to keep the rule in place, saying the virus and its variants remain a threat to the elderly and people whose the immune system is weakened or disabled.

However, the political calculus may be changing. Last month, eight Democrats broke with the White House and joined Senate Republicans in a token vote against the mask mandate. Four of those Democrats will face tough re-election races in November, and the party is unlikely to retain control of the Senate if any of them lose.

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