The Transporation Mask Mandate Should Expire. Will It?

The transportation mask mandate runs through January 18, 2022. Eleven days into the Biden administration the federal government required masks to be worn on planes and in airports, where it was already required, as well as other public transport.

The rule was supposed to expire May 11, but it got extended to September 13, and then into the beginning of 2022. While Covid-19 cases are rising again in the U.S., it’s time to drop the mandate. The pandemic is, for all intents and purposes, over (not that the mandate for masks in transportation mattered much to begin with).

  • The mask mandate actually required airlines to offer disability exemptions, which their pre-existing rules did not. And almost no one pays fines for violating the mask rule anyway.

  • While masks offer some benefit in mitigating virus spread, masks that meet the rule that many people wear do very little. We could require really effective masks, properly fitted and worn, but there’s no appetite for that in any case.

  • Not only are vaccines available now to everyone in the U.S., boosters are too, and bioscientists have even developed highly effective therapeutics. We can protect ourselves against the virus, and we can treat it if we choose not to do so or experience a breakthrough case. The underlying idea behind the mandate is no longer meaningful. Not to mention that the majority of inflight incidents – way up since the mandate – centering around masks.

  • People can still choose to wear masks, and N95 masks properly fitted and worn are protective.

Vaccines, as administered so far, show declining immunity. Moderna seems to last longer than Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson should have been a two dose vaccine from the start. The second dose was likely given way too quickly (8-12 weeks may have been better than 3-4 weeks) but this is a pandemic and the goal was to get through trials with a safe and effective solution as quickly as possible. Moderna’s vaccine (for the first two shots) is twice the dose of Pfizer, but for boosers drops down to be only a 50% bigger dose.

Like many other vaccines, boosters are needed, and everyone who can should get one. It’s not clear whether we’ll need subsequent shots or when but days after a booster immunity is restored to originally-measured levels.

  • You reduce the likelihood of getting Covid-19 when you’re vaccinated.
  • When you don’t get it you don’t spread it.
  • And the preponderance of evidence suggests that breakthrough cases are less likely to spread, which makes scientific sense since virus is likely to be coated in antibodies (even if there’s ‘similar viral loads’ as in unvaccinated individuals).
  • Plus vaccinated people clear the virus more quickly, and if they’re infectious it’s usually for a shorter period of time.

So go get boosted. And at some point of course we’ll be talking about full vaccination as including a third shot if it’s been more than a certain period of time from the second, though we’re so dysfunctional we still count two Sinovac shots as vaccinated (pre-Delta it was maybe 51% effective against sympomatic disease) and don’t count prior infection plus an mRNA dose as vaccinated even though it’s likely more protective than two doses and certainly more effective than J&J.

The decision point for extending the transportation mask mandate last time came just as the Delta wave was ramping up in the Southeast. Increasing case numbers meant it was going to get extended. Aircraft are one of the safer indoor environments, so it’s odd to require masks there but not in restaurants and bars, but it’s where the federal government came up with a (dubious) legal theory about how they had the authority to impose it.

Some Biden advisors want to make the mask mandate permanent although there’ll be no legal basis for this once the Department of Health and Human Services lifts its emergency declaration, unless Congress acts to require it, and Congress no longer legislates (though they certainly appropriate).

The Biden administration will want (and need!) to declare victory over Covid-19 before the midterms. And the truth is that for all intents and purposes the pandemic is over, all that stands in the way is bureaucracy that will likely yield in a couple of months.

Now we have not just vaccines and monoclonal antibodies but real treatments that appear remarkably effective. The Pfizer pill was 89% effective against hospitalization when beginning to take it within 3 days of symptom onset.

We have that and the Merck pill, which can almost certainly be used in conjunction with each other (although it will be awhile before that gets studied). We also have fluvoxamine, a cheap antidepressant which has shown efficacy even in the same trials showing that Ivermectin doesn’t seem to have a clinical benefit (it was actually quite reasonable a year ago to believe it might).

Since nearly everyone in America can now protect themselves with vaccines (and children under 5 simply do not have statistically meaningful risk compared to other risks we have long accepted), and there are now effective treatments when cases do occur, the pandemic is about to be ‘over’ at least in the United States. There’s simply no public health justification for continuing the mask mandate.

Bureaucrats are conservative, and those who have advocated for masks (I was an early proponent, long before the CDC came around) tend to see it as ‘zero cost’ which it isn’t. Seeing no downsides suggests it should continue forever, but if you believe the reason to force it on people, oddly in one of the safer indoor environments, rested on risk that people couldn’t avoid or treat or rested on overwhelming hospitals then the justification for the mask mandate is effectively over at least once the FDA allows people to get the Pfizer pill.

It looks like we’ll have case surges in several parts of the country outside of the Southeast. We’ll have cases we didn’t need because we’ve delayed boosters for all even as we’ve thrown away well more than 15 million doses that were allowed to expire. We’ll have more negative outcomes from those cases because the FDA will not yet allow anyone to take Paxlovid – even though it’s been deemed so effective they had to end the trial early because it was considered no longer ethical to give anyone a placebo rather than the real thing.

But once the FDA allows Paxlovid as a treatment for Covid, where’s the risk of overwhelming hospitals on an expected value basis? Let alone the risk coming from fully vaxxed and boosted passengers on planes?

The timing of the Delta wave hitting the Northeast and elsewhere suggests we could see one more extension of the mandate – simply because it would be awkward to end it as reported cases are at a high level, not because doing so alters the course of the pandemic in any meaningful way – but if it gets extended one more time that one will be the last.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. I cannot disagree with you more, and your own words make the case to continue to wear a mask. Even vaccinated people are getting breakthrough cases (so get boosted). And the numbers are going back up in parts of the US, and globally.

    But unless there is a vaccine mandate to travel, and that won’t happen, masks are another layer of protection from airborne exposures. There is scientific evidence they work, and they are an easy and simple way to protect yourself, and others.

  2. Am I reading this right. There is no mandate for passengers to be vaccinated. I’m in Canada and I find this incomprehensible. I guess it’s one of the reasons why pretty well every Canadian province has a lower seven day average of new Covid cases than American states have.

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