How Well Do Masks Work When You Travel?

Some readers confuse my concerns with the federal transportation mask mandate – that it simply duplicated airline policies already in place while allowing more exceptions, that it prevents airlines from requiring better masks as some European carriers do, and that the legal basis for the rule is questionable at best – for an opposition to masking generally.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I argued in March 2020 that people should be wearing masks, when the CDC was still recommending against this, and that airline crew should be allowed to wear masks when airlines were still forbidding it. However I’ve been an advocate of wearing properly fitting better quality masks.

It does seem silly to require masking on planes, which are relatively safe indoor environments compared to restaurants and bars, thanks to downward airflow and HEPA air filtration. But crowded airports – from government security checkpoints to gate areas – lack those protections. Rules aside, it seems like a helpful though hardly foolproof measure.

It’s easy to forget that there are two separate roles that masks play as a prophylactic:

  1. Source control limiting virus spread from the wearer

  2. Reducing viral load that the wearer takes in

Lower quality masks may help with the former, and are less likely to help with the latter. If you’re wearing a cloth mask that’s not going to keep out much virus, but it might still provide a small benefit protecting people from you.

Perhaps the greatest challenge with Covid-19 has been its infectiousness prior to presenting with symptoms. In generally people with symptomatic Covid are most infectious in the two days prior to showing symptoms and the three days after.

There’s a lot of debate over how effective masks are, and to conflate the different types of masks. What’s important is to continually look at new evidence and update priors when warranted.

The full paper can be found here and suggests that masks aren’t perfect but offer meaningful benefit, and that better masks are better.

Now, if you’ve received a full course of mRNA vaccines or a two dose regimen of an adenovirus vaccine you’re much less likely to get the virus (but with the amount of virus spread, there are more cases among the vaccinated) and less likely to spread it (in part because you’re likely to clear the virus faster). So I don’t think it makes sense to mandate masks for fully vaccinated individuals, it wouldn’t be hard to provide a vaccine passport (wristband) exempting from such a requirement.

However I think it makes sense for someone fully vaccinated to properly wear an N95 mask when in crowded indoor space. I’ve long thought it made sense to wear a good mask during flu season. Mask-wearing has been widely accepted in Asia, but not in the U.S. There was a social stigma over masks here, that I think has mostly gone away in some parts of the country. I expect to wear masks in airports during peak flu once the pandemic is over.

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. Source control is probably the more important reason to make everyone wear masks since even asymptomatic double-vaccinated people can shed the virus.

    Unfortunately, people tend not to do things that benefit others rather than themselves (particularly in the US), which is why the messaging tends to focus on the benefits to the wearer.

  2. Even pre-covid, I wore a mask while sick as a courtesy to others to prevent me from getting them sick. The amount of confusion and strange looks it caused was huge but just mostly amusing. Even when in the reddest of states no one really cared back then what others were doing or not. Except I could not wear them into banks (didnt try nightclubs or bars because why go when sick?). Lots of people actually thanked me for wearing it.

    Now, mask wearing has been politicized and its downright scary to wear one sometimes. People threaten to hurt me, shoot me, kill me, if I dont take it off right away. Even when I have a runny nose and am clearly sick just trying to get medicine at the pharmacy they don’t care. Sigh …

  3. Tell me why we are citing a story from Bangladesh and not a study done in the US funded by the CDC which is pushing mask wearing?
    Mask wearing might work but the CDC would do wonders to convince people of its effectiveness if it did a study in America using Americans with American resources.
    If United and the DoD can do a study showing the effectiveness of aircraft air filtration systems in the earliest months of the pandemic and provide specific percentages of effectiveness, then US scientists can provide specific effectiveness of various types of masks worn in the US by Americans using the levels of compliance that Americans are willing to do.

    IN other covid news, there are studies that show that a majority of covid deaths have been among people that are overweight or obese, addressing America’s weight problem might do a whole lot more not just for the covid era but for decades beyond.

  4. Now that the national shortage of N95 is over and hospitals and doctors have sufficient supply, I wear double masks when shopping for groceries. I were a tight fitting N95 (poor man’s test is that my glasses do not get fogged up when breathing hard and that I cannot smell a banana up close with the mask on) and then put a mask over that. That 2nd mask is to exert a little more pressure on the mask, to allow the N95 mask to be reused, and to cover the N95 mask so other people don’t get angry and want to punch me.

    N95 masks are single use but it has been shown to be reusable. I use up to 2 per day then quarantine the mask for a few days. I have about 10 masks hanging in the closet in quarantine. After a week, any coronavirus on the mask is dead. It’s more like 1-3 days.

    I am concerned about mu (vaccine resistant) and delta. I shop for groceries in a hurry and in the early morning when there’s fewer people. We expect the military to be on alert against enemies so why not you and me be alert for masks and Covid avoidance?

  5. I would disagree with characterizing mask wearing as typical.

    I wear a mask when required and I don’t make a big noise over it; however, I hate wearing it.

    I understand masks work, there’s no denying that, and the simple truth is, when you’re an adult sometimes you have to do things you don’t like for the common good and your fellow citizens.

    That doesn’t mean I have to like it though, and it irritates me to no end when people talk about it using language like “it’s just a piece of cloth”, “it’s no big deal”, “it’s very minor”, etc. I am so grateful that it doesn’t bother you (hypothetical speaker), but just because you feel a certain way about something, doesn’t mean that I therefore also feel that way (or should feel that way).

    So a little more empathy for those who are trying to play ball and do the right thing goes a long way. None of this is intended to be directly critical of this article, but talking about how “everyone does it in Asia, so what’s the big deal” (I’m paraphrasing) I think gives that impression.

  6. I only wear a mask if I absolutely have to.and wear it as loose as possible. I’m over it and would never consider wearing one just to protect others. Not my problem.

  7. I’m with @Q-Ship. I hate wearing a mask, but I do it when required to without putting up a fuss. Once this is ever over, if I live long enough, I will happily sponsor a mask burning party. To me, apart from being very uncomfortable, the masks make us less human. When I can I give and see a smile again? And they are a constant, in-your-face reminder of a really horrible 17+ months and counting and counting.

  8. Says he doesn’t oppose masking then goes on to say people shouldn’t have to wear masks on planes or vaccinated people shouldn’t have to wear them etc. Just another anti-mask article. Wear the mask or don’t fly how about that? This virus is ravaging parts of the country and you are still babbling about mask mandates. Seriously get over it. How many articles do you need to write about this?

  9. Bill
    just tell us how effective wearing a mask is to stop (not possibly slow) the spread of the c19 virus.
    If you or others are so convinced that masks help, then don’t you think it would be good to know how well they actually work?
    You and a whole lot of other people are giving false hope to people who THINK that masks make a difference when in reality they probably do very little good when all factors are considered. Even the study from Bangladesh provides such a low level of additional safety that no one should cling to mask wearing as do anything.
    If the US can spend billions on all that it has over the past year, it isn’t at all unreasonable to expect them to produce a study that says “in a classroom setting w/ students wearing cloth masks (of X thickness) or non-surgical paper masks with 3 out of 25 students covid positive and releasing the maximum known amount per person of virus particles, x% of the students inhaled a sufficient number of virus particles to likely become infected while y% did not.”
    The same thing should be able to be demonstrated for office settings, public gatherings such as churches or sports events, as well as in retail settings.”

    Mask wearing has been the single most implemented measure in the covid era. It behooves the country to know how effective they actually work. and no one should blindly accept “it might reduce…”language when vaccine manufacturers, test manufacturers, and air filtration system manufacturers all have provided scientific data to show how effective their products work.

    And if surgical masks really work far better than any thing else, and will end the disease the US government should be using its authority to produce enough of them to send a case to every American home every week until this is over.

  10. Why are we still wearing masks internationally? No one on the plane is infected. I flew BA into London yesterday. Whilst they are not fanatics about it, unlike United, I dislike 12 hours behind a mask, This theatre has certainly curtailed my travel. Still, I suppose that makes the ecomentalists happy.

  11. El oh el @ all the “if I wear a mask people threaten to shoot me if I don’t take it off immediately!!!” folks.

    Get out of your mum’s basement and off the internet for a minute. The real world isn’t actually that mean. It’s all in your heads

  12. Bangladesh!?? ahahahaha Please… Cloth masks that the vast majority wear , including all our kids,DO NOT WORK… Blue Surgical offer “some” protection. Maybe 10% reduction per article? BuT as the esteemed Dr. Faucci put it early in the pandemic. “I would wear 2 Blue Surgical Masks”.. Im sure all of you are doubling up on these. Right?? And Yes the N95 offer most protection, but this is not sustainable over long periods of time. You cant breath. Stop telling us universal masking stops the spread. Start saying Universal n95 Or better will stop the spread. Everything else is window dressing and giving people a false sense of security.

  13. Right on Steve D. Unfortunately a lot of people simply believe whatever is generated on the nightly news as fact; pure and simple and get angry when anyone else questions the media, CDC, or asks for proof of what is being said. That is the sad reality of the world we now live in. As for you Derek, I would not want to live in your very small and scary, fear filled, world!

  14. It is all simply an issue of power and control. It has been proven that the virus particle is much smaller than any filtration capacity of a mask you were on your face. As we have seen the mask mandates have literally done nothing to control the virus itself and create harmful side effects as a result. Don’t get me started on the vaccines which were supposed to be the solution and yet are now likely to require continual boosters as the virus mutates after each vaccine is introduced. The answer is vitamins, healthy lifestyle and herd immunity..

  15. People forget that the virus enters thru all five openings in the face.
    Masks protect only the 3 openings in your face, the mouth and the two nostrils.
    The other two openings in the face are left unprotected.
    Unless one wears goggles, if the viral aerosols are present they will enter thru the eye membranes and one will get infected.
    Not to mention that their effectiveness has not been proven and that they may offer marginal protection at most.
    So much about mask protection!
    One should not count on masks for viral protection.

    Now, as far as protecting others by wearing a mask, unless it’s a tight fit N95 mask all other masks, cloth, surgical masks, etc., are also of marginal use as the aerosol viral particles will escape in the surroundings in an interior area. Especially if an infected one sneezes!
    And even a N95 mask will get blown out by a good sneeze, and there go the aerosol particles.

    So, do not count solely on masks for protecting yourself or others.
    The only thing that will protect with a pretty high degree of certainty is a Vaccine or a couple of Vaccines.
    And even that’s not an 100% certainty against infection but it is about 100% protection against death from the virus.

    And, do not forget getting and transmitting the virus by your hands. All it takes is scratching your nose, mouth, or your eyes to get infected.
    Even amongst the best of us trying to keep our hands off our face is a no-win situation.
    Just think, as an example, the flight attendant who has served a 100-200 or more passengers in the plane and has handled a lot of back and forth items between passengers, and she/he hands you a glass of water, and you forgetfully scratch a part of your face.
    There you go, you’re infected!
    Hopefully, you’re Vaccinated!!!

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