I was an early proponent of masks on planes, when airlines were still threatening cabin crew with discipline if they wore one. I was an advocate of leveling up your mask as better masks became available. Cloth masks don’t do much, while (non-counterfeit) KN95, KF94, and especially N95 masks offered real protection.
However once vaccines were widely available, and the level of virus spread began abating in spring 2021, I thought mask mandates no longer made sense (but that many people should continue to wear them). Planes, of course, are more protective than other indoor environments where there were no such mandates in much of the country, like restaurants, bars and gyms.
While vaccines continue to hold up well (in some ways surprisingly, but fortunately!) against severe disease from the Omicron variant, and the variant itself is less virulent, there’s been unprecedented levels of spread. With such a contagious virus it’s not clear how well lesser masks, which satisfy the mandate, work. But there are returns to just about any reduction in spread when hospitals are stretched thin. So there was at least an argument for a mandate during the Omicron wave.
Without imminent threats to health care capacity, there’s little argument for delaying infection. With the newest version of Omicron, it’s so transmissible that we’re reasonably likely ‘all’ (in the limit) to get it. And brief delays no longer have high payoffs. Delay while waiting for vaccines made tremendous sense. Delay even as treatments become more available make some sense, too. But we’re on the cusp of even that, with greater availability of both variant-effective monoclonal antibodies and greater supply of Paxlovid.
It seems to me, then, that no matter what your position on continued masking on planes throughout the Omicron wave – that it no longer makes sense to extend the federal transportation mask mandate which currently runs through March 18, 2022.
The New York Times links to my take on masking on planes and prediction that the mandate will end before the midterm elections – that it will ultimately be lifted for political rather than scientific reasons.
Betting markets now give 3-1 odds that the mask mandate will be gone before the election. Prediction markets are frequently more reliable than expert commentary because well-informed observers put real money behind their arguments (it’s their revealed expectations, rather than cheap talk). And Polymarket is the most robust platform (though the Feds don’t like it).
Governor Kathy Hochul of New York understood something important when imposing mask mandates in her state. Mandates were lifted when they didn’t make sense. She re-imposed them when she believed that they did. This was tied to levels of spread that might tax hospital capacity, something still fresh in the mind of New Yorkers. And she made those mandates temporary – everyone could understand what was at stake, and that they were only being asked to take preventive measures for a limited time. She lifted the mandate as the immediate risk subsided. That gives her credibility to re-impose measures if and when they’re needed again.