Airlines Already Require Masks, We Don’t Need A Federal Mask Mandate

In September the CDC drafted an order to require masks on all public and commercial transportation in the U.S. The White House coronavirus task force blocked the order.

[T]he order would have required face coverings on airplanes, trains, buses and subways, and in transit hubs such as airports, train stations and bus depots.

A task force official said the decision to require masks should be left up to states and localities.

This is supposedly to be viewed as shocking meddling with public health guidance that can save lives. But there is a real argument that mask mandates should start and stop at different times in different places – if there’s one thing that is consistent about the virus and how it’s experienced it’s heterogeneity. The same policy doesn’t make sense everywhere potentially even within the same state.

For as bad as Texas was hit with Covid-19 over the summer, did you know there are still counties here that haven’t had a single confirmed case throughout the pandemic? (Officials in counties with fewer than 1.5 cases per day on average over a two week period can request to opt out of the state’s mask mandate.)

In places where there’s mask skepticism an order may work for a certain amount of time before people tire of it, and you want to use the time where you’re going to get maximum compliance to greatest effect. Remember that mask skepticism stems in part from mixed messaging coming out of CDC in the first place, which has made it harder to gain compliance.

I’m going to express an unpopular view, and perhaps draw significant hate in the comments. If you like masks, you probably think mandating them is good. If you hate masks, you probably think mandating them is bad. This is a post everyone can hate on though because it’s pro-mask and anti-mandate.

I’m an advocate of masks and have been since long before the CDC found religion on this issue. But I don’t think a nationwide transportation mask mandate imposed by the CDC is the best way to approach mask compliance. Here’s why.

  • Like with everything else from the CDC during the pandemic this comes extremely late, after it’s of little use. They blew testing early in the pandemic, distributing a test – the only one permitted – that didn’t work. The government wouldn’t allow use of tests other than the flawed CDC one. They also blew orders to screen and track international arriving passengers, which let the virus spread. They downplayed asymptomatic and presymptomatic spread, and until last month denied spread via aerosols. Their track record here is poor.

  • All commercial airlines of significance in the U.S. already require masks. Even Allegiant no longer even lets passengers substitute a face shield for a mask.

  • The CDC has consistently been meddled with throughout the pandemic. The agency keeps leaking the ways that their guidance has been interfered with. But that only makes them look bad because they take it. There haven’t been mass resignations of leadership. They appear to care more about retaining their jobs than speaking truth about the virus to the public.

  • It took so long for people to start wearing masks because CDC guidance told them not to. This was an intentional lie, meant to keep people from buying respirator masks that were in short supply. They wanted to preserve ‘good’ masks for hospital workers and for the government itself.

  • Mask skepticism traces in part to the mixed messages the CDC and government has sent about the effectiveness of masks. They’re he wrong ones to be carrying the message about the importance of masks.

Ultimately the recommendation of CDC scientists comes late, after their own bungling of the mask issue, and where the political process in the U.S. has largely done better than they have with masks throughout the country. And while it’s important to listen to scientists (despite the way CDC has consistently performed poorly in 2020), the advice necessarily has to run through a political process that takes what’s possible into account. If people in South Dakota, for instance, are only going to accept a mask mandate for a couple of months then when the mandate is imposed matters a lot. Doing it for the whole country at the same time, when the virus itself hasn’t spread evenly, may not be the best policy.

I’ve been a consistent advocate of masks, even when the CDC was saying they weren’t necessary. I advocated masks for flight attendants when American Airlines was punishing flight attendants who wore them. I’m no coronavirus skeptic, having been covering it since January and writing about stocking up on supplies in February before most people were taking it seriously here, and commenters were telling me I was nuts, that this was ‘just the flu’.

Still, the CDC deciding all of a sudden in September that masks should be required on public and commercial transportation throughout the country until the agency decides to lift the requirement isn’t the best way to target mask compliance.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Airlines are inter-state carriers. Discussion of localized unconfirmed cases doesn’t apply to widespread travel. The airlines need something to back up their corporate policy. Removing a passenger for violating a mask policy stands on shaky grounds. Who’s going to do the removing – the FA and the Captain? Federal law makes it more enforceable.

  2. Wow, only the second comment and someone cannot fathom that many people, like you Gary, will wear a mask but do not support a national mandate and are fine with more refined state and local mandates. Hopefully, the hate comments from the two extremes won’t start soon but I have my doubts about my fellow mankind.

  3. Perhaps I missed this in the analysis, but there is a difference between a mandate and a recommendation.
    Here’s an excerpt from an article in the Independent.
    Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has said that if he is elected, he would mandate that face masks be worn on federal property to curb the spread of the virus.

    The comments came during a 75-minute drive-in CNN town hall event at PNC Field in Moosic, Pennsylvania.

    Mr Biden said that, as president, he would not have the authority to compel every US citizen to wear a mask. Instead, the former Vice President said he would “call every governor in the country into the White House (and) say, ‘You should be putting mandates out’”.

  4. The experts at the CDC (and everyone else) were early on the learning curve during 1Q2020, and even now we (and in particular our experts) are all still learning about this novel and dangerous virus that has killed over 200K US residents. Its unrealistic/irresponsible to accuse any of the experts of flip-flopping as you have and then use that as an excuse for ignoring them. We are collectively annealing to ideal policy as we learn.

    While you’re right that in some counties few people have become sick enough to go to a hospital, the reality is that its just a matter of time, because we have effectively unrestricted travel everywhere in the US. As Dr. Redfield, director of the CDC recently testified ( masks, properly worn, may be more effective in ending the virus in 6-12 weeks, than a future vaccine in stopping transmission of the virus. Anything government can do to lead people toward wearing masks correctly when outside your home, should be done. Giving people an excuse to not wear a mask by: modeling inappropriate behavior, or saying that it’s not appropriate in some circumstances, or claiming that the advice from the CDC is tainted because they were once clearly (in hindsight) wrong, is irresponsible and dangerous.

    Today, the US collectively has a huge problem with mask wearing compliance based on my first hand observations living in NYC and my travels recently to upstate NY, WV, PA, RI, and MA. I believe, like Dr. Redfield, that if people wore masks correctly, in 6-12 weeks we could be done with this virus in the US.

    My technology company does a lot of work for public transit agencies, large and small. These agencies are desperate for government leadership to support safe mask wearing.

    Finally, I think we can all agree that wearing a mask correctly is an inconvenience. We all need to take some personal responsibility and suffer the inconvenience for ending this virus that is causing such physical, emotional, and economic pain. As a self-described “thought-leader,” you Gary need to more than average personal responsibility to ending this novel virus. Honestly Gary, I’m disappointed in you for this post.

    While nobody outside my industrial niche has called me a “thought leader,” I still politely ask everyone reading this comment to suffer the inconvenience and wear a face mask properly to do your part to end this virus.

  5. I’m with you on this one Gary. I’m looking at how a mandate will play out in the end. When will the government declare it’s “safe” again to not wear masks? Remember, we are still taking off our shoes and no liquids (above 3.4oz) almost 20 years after the first incidents.

  6. If Americans are dumb enough to elect Donald Chump then they sure do need a FEDERAL mandate on masks!

  7. As a proponent of masks as a personal decision, I’m not a denier/skeptic of the virus, just people.

    One can clearly see the political power play, states wanting the president to take a definitive stand/decisive action all the while threatening legal action for stepping on their rights to govern/rule. This game of absolution was and still is played publicly causing the upset and mask fatigue. Have you held a dog so tight, what comes of it? He wriggles attempting be free which then leads to anxious biting followed by the real bite, it’s that fight or flight instinct. That does apply to humans it just manifests in other ways.

    The people have been told how they’re terrible, selfish, careless, and self-centered by their elected officials; even by fellow citizens they’re chastised venemously just look at social & news media. Europe being held as the standard of good & proper management, yet, no mention of the current european state of affairs: Spain, France, Italy, UK, and Germany offering threat of additional lockdowns. People have developed mask fatigue secondary to acute onset political fever.

    The most recent news from europe indicates the best course, as it turns out is Protecting the Vulnerable.

    Some feared the virus, yet, had a greater fear of their government taking advantage of the situation. This was laughed at and ridiculed as paranoia, yet, here in California many decisions have been made that do not reflect the citizens. 2035 all sales of IC gas/diesel powered vehicles are outlawed. All new development must use solar energy. Prison releases due to the virus spread within the penal system, yet, failure to wear a mask will get you locked up in the very same system of super-spread. Narc-on your neighbour lines set up and encouraged, this sounds more akin to the days of Deutschland uber alles.

    How do you get get folks to buy-in when they’ve been sold a bag of garbage in a pretty package?

  8. Not only do crazy right wingers and new age nuts need a mask mandate, they need to be fined for breaking it! Americans are out of control with their deadly combination of ignorance and narcissism.

  9. There’s no way to even enforce a federal mandate even if it did exist. Who would do the enforcement? FBI? Military? States that don’t have mandates won’t their use resources to enforce it. Local police? You want more high stress interactions between police and the community?

    A federal mandate would never be enforced and would only serve to divide our nation even further. It’s this division making it so difficult to keep the virus under control. So while masks help fight the virus, mandates hurt that fight without increasing compliance.

  10. So, the questions has come up: how would a President enforce a mask requirement in all 50 states? While I’m not a lawyer, it’s pretty much the same as with seat-belts that are now enforced in all 50 states by local law enforcement. On federal jurisdictions, seat-belts are the law, and you can get a ticket for not belting up (e.g. in national parks or military installations). In all 50 states, the individual legislatures have made not wearing a seatbelt a moving violation because if the state wants to access the Highway Trust Fund for surface transportation projects (where your federal gas excise tax goes) that’s one hoop each state needs to jump through.

    So, if I was President, I’d work with Congress to make it federal law on federal property to wear a mask (with suitable exceptions like being in ones residence, not for people with MD diagnosed emphysema or the like, under age x, etc.), and in the same legislation require that if a state wanted to access federal health care funds they would need to have a statewide mask ordinance meeting some minimum requirements similar to the federal requirement.

    Finally, everyone in my administration would model good mask hygiene. I.e. it would be a condition of employment in my administration to follow the ordinance.

    And when the head of the CDC certified that the pandemic was over, the federal mask requirement would go away.

  11. Remember the “no shoes, no shirt, no service” which has worked very well in the hospitality industry. I have no problems with mask mandates. It is only trumpers that have a problem with masks. So for me, bring on the mask mandate. It is about time that American society grows up and starts acting responsibly!

    Everyone is betting on a vaccine. There is a very good chance that a vaccine will only provide short term benefit. If it even works at all. So, wearing masks could be a forever thing. Again, Americans need to act responsibly.

  12. “Wear a damned mask”—Chris Wallace
    “Wear a fu**ing mask”–Bruce Springsteen

    the hassle of wearing a mask is greatly outweighed by the possibility that it will prevent the spread of Covid. Wear a mask—-bigbirdwithsilverwings

  13. Well we can still like you even as we point out that a rule requiring masks encourages masks in other areas, and even you admit that masks are good. Back in the day, people argued personal freedom entitled people to drive without seatbelts. Now is no time for you to be echoing Trump’s resistance to using masks and distancing.

  14. Mandates really have nothing to do with the “disease” or “safety” or however it is defined. A mandate has to do with your “liberty” and “freedom” to choose. As in choosing to have an abortion.
    Having the choice doesn’t mean you’re going to go out there and immediately have one, or not wear a mask.
    I think wearing a mask makes a lot of sense.

  15. If mask fatigue happens, I don’t think the government should allow it but enforce the mask mandates, to not have mask mandate now because of worry of a fatigue is the opposite response to what it should be. Enforce the mandate if necessary, the government shouldn’t bend to people who don’t want masks any more than it should bend to those who don’t want helmets.

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