The One Thing Stopping The Biden Administration From Lifting Air Travel Mask Mandate

I’ve consistently argued for the last year that the transportation mask mandate would be lifted some time before the November elections. That’s because the administration needs to ‘declare victory’ on the virus as Democrats struggle to defend control of both houses of Congress. Betting markets now agree with me, but not overwhelmingly so.

  • Mask mandates are a symbol of the pandemic’s continuation
  • Declaring victory, at a minimum, means that the Secretary of Health and Human Services “rescinds the determination under section 319 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 247d) that a public health emergency exists” and this is the snap back language that automatically and immediately lifts the rule regardless of its current end date.

The federal mask mandate currently runs through March 18. The fact that there have been target expiration dates means that at some point it could simply be allowed to sunset, rather than requiring an affirmative action step to be taken. That’s what makes it possible that at some point before the election that the rule will end.

However there’s a powerful force that is extending pandemic restrictions: fear that restrictions could be lifted, and circumstances might change that would necessitate them again. While it seems reasonable that rules ought to be in place when they’re needed, and not when they aren’t needed – so lift them as circumstances dictate, and re-impose again in the future if required – this fact-based inquiry is difficult in politics.

As Democrat Nate Silver highlights, the Biden Administration believes it needs to continue restrictions because not doing so risks embarrassment if something changes.

Vaccines are holding up remarkably well against hospitalization considering we’re still vaccinating against the ancestral Wuhan strain. The virus is so fast-spreading now that mitigation measures work far less well. Airline cabins are safer than other indoor congregant settings where masks aren’t required. Remarkably effective treatments have been developed. It seems like we’re headed into the endemic stage of the virus where we learn to coexist with it through annual vaccination and subclinical infection without straining hospitals – and that means individuals taking precautions appropriate to their circumstances rather than widespread government mandates.

However there’s a chance that restrictions get lifted but the Omicron wave turns out not to be the last gasp of the virus. That would make it thinkable that restrictions could make sense again. But the political calculus is that looks like the administration ‘made a mistake.’ And this administration’s fear of appearing to make an error is balancing out its need to declare victory. And that could delay lifting the transportation mask mandate.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. You are an epidemiological boob. The evidence is overwhelming that restrictions NEVER made sense.

  2. Thank you for reminding people that there is always a political angle to Covid policy. There is always a story behind the decision. Not sure why anyone thought we would simply manage our way out of Covid by the numbers.

  3. If the mask mandate is lifted, many people will continue to wear masks voluntarily. Others will be very happy to take them off. At this point in the pandemic, especially as the Omicron wave subsides, people who are are vaccinated may decide that they no longer need to wear a mask to protect others, but only to protect themselves. I may choose to wear a KN95 mask while flying if there is no mandate, depending on who is sitting near me, and the prevalence of Covid in the population at the time. I suspect over time, if Covid seems to be in check, I will stop wearing a mask. I am 62, vaccinated and boosted. I haven’t had Covid and I have been wearing a KN95 mask in public since fall 2020. I do go out to eat once in a while as well, and I go to work in an office where 99% of the people are fully vaxxed, so we go unmasked at work. So I’m not a hermit.

  4. Politicians and public health bureaucrats will never lift all of the mask mandates. They’ll simply be ignored, not enforced and ultimately forgotten.

  5. Masks don’t prevent the spread of particles smaller than droplets, but Biden mandates them anyway.

    Vaccines don’t prevent infection or transmission, but Biden mandates them anyway.

    Lockdowns don’t slow the spread or have any meaningful positive impact, but Biden mandates them anyway.

    It’s 100% theater to keep people afraid so that this “administration” can continue operating outside of its legal authority.

  6. This “administration” is a global laughing stock. A POTUS that has no clue where or when he is, his “handlers” are inept morons with not a clue how to run a hot dog stand let alone a massive, overreaching government.
    Good to know that this mask charade is now 100% political. We’ve all know this for a year or more.
    Please get this clown out of the White House and take his lackeys with him.

  7. “You are an epidemiological boob.”

    Clearly in the running for “Understatement of the Day”.

    Gary has been almost impossibly weak during this charade.

  8. “One Thing Stopping The Biden Administration”

    Based on the article title, I thought the one factor that will stop this mandate from lifting is airline flight attendent unions, under Sara Nelson who wont let it go easily so it indirectly contributes to somehow making the flight attendant jobs easier with less work!

  9. I agree that people will stop when there is no enforcement, though that is easier to demand in airport/airline settings than in the broad world. It’s like a section of the interstate highway near my home. Its speed limit was set at 45 mph to reduce noise for nearby residents but drivers hated it. Once the pandemic started there were more important things to worry about and everyone began going 55 or 60. So far the police haven’t tried to force it back. And has anyone seen a serious attempt to enforce social distancing lately?

  10. Here’s a novel idea – how about the administration try talking to people like they are adults for a change? Any intelligent person can appreciate that we have to adapt – in life, in business, in policy – to ever-evolving circumstances. Lower the mandate when it’s safe to do so but define the metric by which it could have to be re-introduced (a particular case count per 100K, hospital occupancy level, or death rate) and for whom.

    I’m as liberal as they come, but this has all gone on long enough…we need to try living with it at some point.

  11. Of course Chump had nothing to do with this. The science genius who got rid of the bi-partisan pandemic committee to spite Obama shortly after taking office. He never did get a handle on it and got rid of the people who could have. He also got rid of the Iran nuclear deal to spite Obama. How did that work out? Bunch of “Chump Fools.” blaming Biden. Ha!Ha!Ha!

  12. There is certainly tension between two sides within the administration and the party. One side is fearful of the specter of having to reimpose the mandates, while the other is fearful of the backlash and resentment that grows with each passing month. There is another issue that is tightly connected to the travel mask mandate, and that’s schools.

    It has become clear to me that mandatory masking in schools is rapidly loosing support – faster than I had really expected. Every day there are more articles on liberal sites (Atlantic, Vox, NYT, etc.) that are calling for this to end. While I think school masking guidance from the CDC is unlikely to change this school year, it is absolutely unfathomable to me that the administration will allow this recommendation to be in place in the fall. The political cost would be unbearable.

    This puts the CDC in a tough place when it comes to mask guidance. It’s really hard to say with a straight face that masks should be required indoors, but not at schools. Or that they must be worn on the bus to school, but not in the building (remember, the travel mask mandate covers all forms of transit).

    It’s the school issue that I think will tip the scales in the fear-of-mistake vs pandemic-victory debate over masks. While I suppose it’s possible that the CDC will come out with some guidance that still calls for masking on airplanes and subways only, I really see this as unlikely; especially since such advice would be hard to defend when congress changes hands and mask skeptics get subpoena power.

  13. I worked in politics for 15 years and still love following it. What I don’t love is going to a travel and points blog and reading political opinions.

    Stick to what you do best, Gary, and I don’t just mean shilling for credit cards and ripping on American Airlines (I actually don’t mind either because you gotta make money and AA often does deserve it — though perhaps not that much more than everyone else)..

  14. I would think they would want to make it appear as if things are getting back to normal. After all, Biden has failed at basically everything (Afghanistan, “shutting down” COVID, passing his BBB scam). It would be easy to just lift the restrictions and take credit for it, even though Omicron will sputter out on its own anyway.

  15. Things will be back to normal when Repubs take the majority in November.
    The leftist mouth breathers will continue to be sad and broken, nothing new.

  16. Whatever they do. I just wish they would modify the policy so that very small children don’t have to wear masks. This is an extreme hardship on families with young children and is preventing them from traveling to see extended family. Europe has no such rules, in most cases until the age of 6. There is absolutely no reason to make a 2 or 3 year old to wear a mask, especially on a long haul International Flight that requires proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test.

  17. The unvaccinated are supposedly the only ones at risk if the mask mandate is lifted, right? Are they mostly Biden supporters? Duh!

  18. Yawn….covid is soooo yesterday….we have a war with Russia to attend… no attention to the man behind the curtain. COME ON MAN!!!

  19. The CDC order has no automatic expiration date (however, if the order isn’t rescinded by the time the federal declaration of a public health emergency ends, the order will automatically terminate at that time). The TSA directives do, but TSA has said they will be extended for as long as the CDC order remains in effect.

  20. There’s also a chance that the mandate could be lifted for surface transportation before it’s lifted for air travel.

  21. Masking is already mostly voluntary at airports and on planes. Looking around one will see plenty people who do not have masks on that cover fully their nose and mouth. Stewardesses do not insist on flyers wearing masks properly and same in airports, nobody enforces the mandate. It is so little to insist that if one wants to fly that they wear a non cloth mask properly.

  22. K.C. – I personally think it’s very, very unlikely that they remove the mandate for surface transportation before air. It’s not that people wouldn’t want to, it’s that it makes the legal case for imposing the mandate for air travel only far more dubious.

    Remember, this mandate has NOT been seriously challenged in court yet. A few crackpots have made a couple of poorly-written requests to SCOUTS for emergency injunctive relief and have been shot down, but that is FAR different than having an actual case brought before the court system by real lawyers, state AGs, etc. The longer this stretches on, the more likely those suits become…and the likelier a court striking them down becomes.

    At the onset, the airlines welcomed the mandate. They begrudgingly accepted the extension in the name of labor peace and to protect against a competitive disadvantage. It is now abundantly clear that it’s seriously hurting the bottom line as it hurts business travel and disincentives FC ticket sales, to say nothing of the monthly youtube nightmares of screaming toddlers being thrown off planes. Whereas the airlines (and/or their trade associations) would have been on the government’s side in any litigation at an earlier point in the pandemic, that’s much less likely now. While I don’t really see any US carriers actually bringing suit to end the mandate (at least not yet), I suspect they’d support a serious suit from a third party. Such a suit would be difficult to defend if the mandate was confined to air travel only, and even a brief injunction would be enough to collapse the whole thing.

  23. If I can social distance in a business class pod why should I need a mask? If you fly in economy with the cattle sure maybe were a mask.

  24. Curious why you are labeling Nate Silver a Democrat? I’m not aware of him identifying himself as such, while he has described himself as “between a liberal and a libertarian” saying in 2012 that his voting decision was between Mitt Romney and Gary Johnson.

  25. Breath free; You obviously read the trump rule book. In the first year of Covid when sane people were wearing masks the deaths of humans from flu fell from 60,000 a year to 6000 that year. People with allergies had less attacks that sent them to the emergency room. Can you suggest some other reason for the dramatic drop in these other health issues that afflict we humans.

  26. …”And this administration’s fear of appearing to make an error is balancing out its need to declare victory.” — That is literally the most hilarious thing I’ve seen on the internets all day.

    Every single decision that ramen noodle brain’s puppeteers have made, every single one of them, has been an error.

    You win the internet.

  27. @Alice,

    Yes, the other 54,000 missing flu cases were categorized as covid instead, so the hospitals could get the “covid” Medicare reimbursement that was both higher and paid quicker.

  28. to whomever made this comment:

    “There is absolutely no reason to make a 2 or 3 year old to wear a mask, especially on a long haul International Flight that requires proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test”

    Why only for humans under the age of 2 or 3?

    #1 = humans less than 36 months old somehow have been proven to be incapable of spreading a virus when they exhale, or cry, or sneeze??

    #2 = you are a parent, and you feel the the specific burden you & your child bear is more important than the burden for the rest of us??

    #3 = or did you intend to state “any person of any age”??

  29. Read an article that said when we finally move back to “normal”,there will actually be a small percent of left learning people who are too afraid to give up masks and SD and all the trappings and move back to normal. They will cling to them as long as possible.

    Apparently, that group is also in government too afraid to let go and let masks go. Geez, not like we haven’t had to adapt to changing lockdowns, mask mandates, etc. Over the past 2 years.

    I think some just can’t give up the power to rule over other people

  30. The perennial question I keep getting here in Singapore is, “Why do Americans object to wearing masks during a pandemic”? I guess it’s a political thing, like wearing a MAGA hat? It’s at worst a mild discomfort, and at best, keeps me from spewing infected particles at someone else if I’m unlucky enough to have caught covid.

    So I wear one not to avoid catching something, because they’re not so good at doing that, but rather to avoid infecting others. But why do people not wear a mask? Honestly curious…

  31. The mask mandate will never end. People won’t give up their security blankets, and the powers that be won’t let go of money, power, and control.

Comments are closed.