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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Comments

  1. I expect Brandon to continue it until we’ll after it should be done away with unfortunately especially with the FA unions pushing for it. Not sure it won’t become a permanent requirement (at least until we get a President with some stones)

  2. Finally Gary throws a tantrum about mask mandates after incorrectly doing so for the last 18 months. Good to see some things never change!

  3. @Ryan – I wrote advocating masks at the start of the pandemic when airlines didn’t *allow* their crew to use them. And I couldn’t possibly be calling for an end to the mask mandate for 18 months since it only went into effect 10 months ago. If you want to argue I was wrong in the past, or wrong now, you might offer… reasons.

  4. “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.”

    Exactly–so why is Wall Street reacting (negatively) to the news that Austria has gone into lockdown? I was just reading a blurb from Cramer, who is scratching his head: we have vaccines, we have meds that reduce likelihood of death, we have breakthrough cases that are pretty much like the common cold, we have boosters available for the even more vulnerable folks?

    I am a staunch vax believer but there comes a point where common sense and sanity, based on scientific odds, tell me that enough is enough. The media and have gone overboard in frightening the populus into an perpetual state of constant fear.

  5. Gary, the aircraft may be a “safe“ place to be when it is at altitude with the air on. Not so much when you’re standing on the crowded, airless jet bridge and then sitting in your seat with the engines and air off for 30 minutes waiting to pull back from the gate (often much longer when they suddenly discover they forgot about a maintenance issue). Or all of those times when you land and have to sit on the tarmac waiting for a gate and they shut down the engines. And how about when you sit there for an hour and a half in the winter waiting for the aircraft to be de-iced?

    Covid is hardly “over”, and these are not times when I want to be sitting in an an airless tube with 200 people of unknown health status without masks.

  6. @JP – I’m not arguing that flying is 100% safe, I’ve explained that the airport lacks the same filtration as planes, but it makes zero public health sense for masks to be required inflight on planes and not at bars.

    And United runs the APU on the ground, Delta has largely modified its jetbridges for better airflow and filtration.

    Nonetheless that’s not why mask requirements are unnecessary. We have vaccines and boosters and now the Pfizer pill that shows 89% effectiveness against hospitalization when taken within 3 days of symptom onset. Covid-19 is endemic and we’ll live with it in much the same way as other viruses.

  7. The CDC data shows that Michigan leads the United States in the spread of new fourth wave COVID cases. Welcome to DTW, LAN, FNT, GRR, MBS, TVC, CMX, IWD, MQT, CIU, APN, or AZO.

  8. Willful ignorance & the disgusting efforts by too many to politicize & discredit scientifically proven & effective health & safety standards with lies, disinformation & conspiracy is immoral and cowardly.

  9. Really the pandemic is over!! Cases are sky rocketing. Hospitals are again overwhelmed with Covid patients. 1000 or more dying everyday. Hardly over. And it will get worse. With all the traveling for the holidays and large group meetings indoors. There will be a very large surge in December and January. These poor people who just can’t wear a mask and we add the Covid to the drunks who board planes and assault passengers and crew.

  10. @Gary, sure it’s over because we have effective vaxes and now pills. Or at least it would be if people would *#&^$&* get the vaccine. With such a high percentage of, um, recalcitrant people it’s not over – as any graph of just about any country will tell you. On the contrary, we’re going for a 4th wave in many countries and we are in the middle of the second biggest wave in the US.

  11. Agree with Gary…the number of cases is no longer a valid metric to support masking. A mild breakthrough case is hardly a reason to continue to be fearful. Even the number of hospitalizations can be misleading. When people say vaccinated are also getting hospitalized (which is very rare particularly if in good health) they are leaving out that the average stay in the hospital for a vaccinated person is a few days and they almost always survive, vs an unvaccinated person it’s 3-4 weeks, if they survive.
    We have done all we can do, the option for everyone to get vaccinated is there, if not there are better treatments coming that will greatly reduce the danger of getting Covid even for the unvaxed. I was and am very pro mask and pro vax as what had to be done, now I’m very “it’s finally time to move on”.
    There are plenty other things that are now more likely to kill you then Covid, particularly if your vaccinated.

  12. The pandemic is over? Where in the world do you love and get your information from? Have you looked at the situation in central and eastern Europe? We’re a bit behind them in dressed to the so-called 4thbwave, and as long as we have those doubters and naysayers who refuse to get backed we will not get a grip on things. Look at Portugal: a vaccination rate of more than 95% and no COVID. As long as we have to live together with all those egotistic numbskulls we won’t get there.

  13. I have a problem sitting on a plane wearing an N-95 mask for four hours plus, but I do it. The only way I would be comfortable not wearing a mask would be if there is a vaccination mandate for flying. Word from the front lines of the COVID wars says the people who are catching, spreading and dying from COVID are the unvaccinated.. Why are we letting them get on planes?

  14. Unfortunately I don’t think mask mandates will ever go away. I don’t think COVID will ever go away (it will become endemic). As for the thoughts that vaccines and masks prevent everything, not quite. The only cluster randomized controlled study indicated that cloth masks are basically zero % effective, and surgical masks are around 13% (if you’re in the 60+ age group I think it goes to 46-60% effective) based off the Bangladesh study. In our counties, 50% of the COVID cases are in *FULLY VACCINATED* individuals. Vaccines and masks mitigate things, but some people think masks are 100% effective as are vaccines. (N95 are a diff. story, but until the government mandates that….). Even if vaccines were 100% effective, we’d still have mask mandates because the current administration wants to prevent cold/flu as well now. So get used to it (again, until N95 masks are mandated, you’re only marginally improving things, IF you’re infected, IMO).

  15. Change the mandate to requiring full vaccinations to fly. Then the people who choose to wear a mask can certainly still do so and a high level of safety is preserved.

  16. “The pandemic is over.” – someone who doesn’t work in a hospital. We as a society have already acted as though we are entitled to the labor of our healthcare professionals, and the argument here is that we should run the risk of elevating that because we’re tired of doing something as small as wearing a piece of cloth over our faces. Planes are, undoubtedly, a relatively safe space from a viral transmission standpoint, but that does not necessarily hold true when you are within 2 meters of an infected person, particularly when you are within that distance for an extended period of time, as you tend to be when on a plane. Anecdotally, the folks I know who work in public healthcare settings are uniform in requesting that people (1) get vaccinated/boosted (where eligible) and (2) to continue to mask in indoor settings. Those modest sacrifices make their jobs easier.

    I definitely agree that there is a bit of dissonance in mandating masks in planes and not in bars, but that is a result of federalism and not necessarily of smart policymaking meant to reduce viral transmission. The federal government does not have the power to require masks in bars, so that comes down to state and local decisionmakers (in my locality, masks are still required in indoor spaces, including restaurants when not seated).

  17. The pandemic isn’t “over” until hospitals aren’t getting taxed to the breaking point…not just in a few states…not just in half the states…but across the entire country.

    Until that happens, COVID is a threat and the pandemic is still a problem. We will be playing COVID whack-a-mole for another year at least. People will remain unvaccinated and therefore susceptible. People will not take, forget to take, or be slow to take boosters and therefore be susceptible. The people who fear the shot because it’s new and was “rushed” to market will fear the treatment pill for the same reason.

    We have a long tradition in this country of declaring victory when the trajectory curve on a threat starts down…not when the curve has been crushed to death with no possible chance of it being a threat again. This is partly why we keep seeing a roller coaster like effect with the Pandemic…it flares up and restrictions get put in place…then it dies down and restrictions lift and people drop their guard and things flare up again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

    I’m not here to argue whether the mask travel mandate makes sense or not or whether it should expire or not. I’m here to refute the notion that the pandemic is over. It’s not. Not yet.

  18. Epidemiologist Gary is the best Gary.

    Relax, folks. Gary has declared the pandemic over. Nevermind that very few actual public health experts say that; and that most actually say the opposite.

    Dramatically reduced individual risk for those of us that have chosen to do the right and responsible thing by getting our vaccinations and boosters does not equate to the pandemic being over. And those treatment pills are a ways away from being widely approved, produced, and distributed at mass quantity.

    Don’t take your public health advice from a credit card salesman.

  19. Well lockdowns for the vaccinated are now a thing again. I’d glady put up with mask mandates in place of lockdowns for the vaccinated.

  20. Yes we have vaccines, so require them. Especially for flying. Then you can drop the mask mandate and only those who want or need to protect themselves more fully can mask. We can end this madness.

  21. Gary, on Thursday a major SCIENTIFIC study from Britain concluded after analyzing data from a number of Countries that masks and handwashing are 50% MORE effective than even vaccines in preventing the spread of CoVid. Masks may be annoying BUT they WORK. The desire to pretend the CoVid situation is over and we’re going to get back to “normal” is blind and stupid and will only result in more unfortunate deaths. It ain’t hard…get vaccinated, wear the mask in any crowd situation, and keep washing. Basic, but effective.

  22. @gary – it’s incorrect to say you don’t spread COVID if you’re vaccinated. You can. You’re just less infectious and for a shorter period of time, as your immune system (usually) shuts it down

  23. @whatisavaccine – I did not say you can’t, I said you are less likely to, which is correct – for the reasons I write and you repeat in your comment

  24. @mike apo any claim that masks and handwashing are more effective than vaccines is silly. Handwashing! When very little transmission is from surfaces.

  25. Gary’s not a doctor….he just played the part on TV, er, his blog.

    Leave this to science and leave your “freedom” agenda out of the otherwise-helpful Viewfromthewing posts please

  26. Spent the last few weeks in Sweden. No masks anywhere. Not in theaters,
    on trains, even the airport and on domestic flights. During my first few days there were some guys wearing masks in the hotel and people nearly jumped out of their way assuming they had to be sick to be wearing a mask.

    Most days it’s easy to forget Covid even exists here. So I looked up the current stats. Despite much of Europe experiencing their highest numbers yet, maskless Sweden has the 4th lowest case numbers of the 50+ European countries being tracked.

    Draw your own conclusions from that odd fact. I’m sure everyone reading this will find a narrative that fits their preconceived notions about the effectiveness of masks and lockdowns. No amount of data or reality will change either side at this point.

  27. At a minimum do away with the mask requirement for 2 year olds. It is keeping families separated creating undue and unnecessary stress while traveling and there is no data that indicates 2 year olds need to wear masks. In Europe the age range is from 6 to 11 year olds for kids to wear a mask. It should be no different here.

  28. We are very close to the point where people who don’t want to die will almost all be safe from that outcome, while those who prefer to take their chances should not be able to cause policy applicable to all. By now all mask mandates are unneeded – just about everyone is either properly vaccinated, doesn’t care about the health risk of not doing so, or is under 5 and not highly at risk. I do have a concern about those who cannot be vaccinated, but in most circumstances of life some combination of social distancing and being sure the people around them are vaccinated should be possible.

  29. The emergency rule allowed big pharma to earn billions while side stepping most safety protocols.

    It will most likely take five to seven years for the really bad complications to appear and remember, there is no legal avenue to sue.

    Our country is now being run by less than 25 large companies, Pharma is way up there. They even wrote the rules themselves so that governments can not donate, give, or share the supposed vac in any way. So sad…

  30. @JP
    I think its time we consider an outright ban on airplanes altogether. Planes crash…..albeit not very often but OnE LiFe Is OnE ToO MaNy !!!!!

  31. “Bureaucrats are conservative”. Any thought of qualifying that gross generalization? Even regarding a non-HHS or “bureaucrat” in another field, that statement seems a bit egregious. As a bureaucrat, I can assure you there are numerous non-conservatives, politically or otherwise. All of that said, I agree wholeheartedly with the substance of the piece!

  32. The folks who wanted to be vaccinated have been vaccinated. How long do we wait for the unvaxxed to die off or change their minds about the jab? There is going to be a 5th wave, then a 6th wave, ad nauseum, with higher deaths occurring every year among the elderly, the infirm, and the unvaxxed. At what point–in terms of population percentage–can we relax and say, enough of the masks? How long do we have to go overboard to protect those around us? From this point onwards will we be trying to have a ‘zero Covid’ policy–which is impossible? This virus is endemic, here to stay.

    As Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say, “there’s always something”.

  33. I recently wrote a fairly long letter to several epidemiologists on the topic KimmieA brought up. Several ignored it, a few more or less agreed and the CDC waffled (which was more than I expected). Here’s some of it:

    What I find difficult to grasp is that here is an endemic virus which clearly isn’t going to vanish. Perhaps the only long term answer, besides a very high R number when enough people are vaccinated, is for future generations to grow up with it as part of their background. Then we and this infection will reach a balance point, as humans have with so many other diseases. If that is correct then our current efforts might well be flattening the curve but all we are really doing is stretching it out. Sooner or later everybody will be exposed and masks, distancing, etc. are simply palliatives which ultimately will provide marginal protection for something which is everywhere.
    Certainly closing borders or checking entering people is pointless. With the possible exception of some very isolated islands and a few other remote places there is enough traffic and air flow to make the spread inevitable.

    Also, since there is a zoonotic reservoir—something not emphasized in the press—COVID will always be around. Similarly there are, and likely will be for the foreseeable future, a lot of people in the Third World who simply are beyond modern health care measures. I certainly saw enough in places like Haiti and South Africa. Trying to stop this or that outbreak is a bit like endlessly fighting fires in a forest prone to flames.
    ….
    A better way to approach the situation might be similar to what happened with AIDS—it began with fear and then progressed to acceptance of its permanence along with reasonable self-precautions by those who could be exposed. Or we might look at it like using seat belts and not smoking. Intelligent personal choices are presented to those who will listen….

    In fact, current efforts may be doing more harm than good. Mandated tests are useless for those who are infected after they take them and even the U.S. government doesn’t bother with such a measure for people coming by land over the borders. Thus we’re creating a false sense of security while not keeping out anything. On an airliner—where is circulation likely to be worse? Why in a lavatory. And where is someone most likely to take off their mask? Right there of course, or else eating and drinking, which leads to exposure too.

    We could reach what I call an “Alcatraz Moment,” when everybody just gives up. When the prison was built the inmates suffered enforced silence. One day they all just started talking and that was the end of that rule. If something similar happens with existing measures then governments will lose all control, unless there’s a plan in place for what can then be done. (In fact, we may be getting close to that. In the past few months I’ve traveled all over the country and seen a lot of signs for social distancing. But they were all ignored. Humans aren’t built for such controls.)

    I don’t know, maybe here in the developed countries we just got too used to being in a semi-sterile environment to remember that plagues are always lurking around. A quick look at history shows there’s no need for ridiculous conspiracy theories to explain that we’re part of nature, diseases included. But in any case going to the other extreme of hiding, or actively trying to push away reality with erratic measures doesn’t seem to be working either.


    I doubt if all this will make any difference, and I’m sure my comparison with the Afghanistan War’s futility was not appreciated either. But it seems that at some point things will just have to change. Governments are generally slow and conservative so I’m better on later rather than sooner, but as I said this just cannot go on.

  34. You’re a medical expert how? Get back in your lane.

    – tired doctor

    How about a vaccine mandate for air travel?

  35. @SB amen! I have several friends who’s children won’t be able to visit their grandparents because of this nonsense. The parents are so afraid of being banned from flying because their 26 month old might refuse to wear a mask at any given moment during those 4 Hours of prison watch by power-hungry FAs. They’re frequent fliers who would lose their jobs if they can’t fly. They don’t want to risk it over their toddler not being old enough to understand and cooperate with insane rules

  36. The pandemic is over as far as I’m concerned. Time to stop letting the media constantly report a number of cases, which is a meaningless metric. Vaccines are widely available. If you don’t want to get one, that’s your problem, not mine. I will no longer do anything to keep anyone else safe. Not my problem. Time to Move on.

  37. Here’s a simple solution to the problem- the U.S. Government needs to put out a “blanket statement” stating you have xx days to have your vaccine and / or booster before we ship ALL of our supply to other countries around the world where people /actually/ are begging to get the vaccine.

    Think of ALL the countries you and I have traveled to and ALL of the hospitality workers that want to feel safe and secure, get back to work and try to get on with their lives.

    Many people around the world want the vaccines but (still) can’t get them. It’s time for us to say enough is enough – you’ve had a “good year or so” to get the vaccine – if you don’t want it, or refuse to take it – the hospitals should make you pay for your personal Covid stay with them and you’ll be responsible for the costs of your own funeral.

    I’m sick and tired of Republicans and Democrats taking sides on this issue – this is about life and death and I, for one, chose life.

    If the Government would put their foot in the sand and draw the line on ending the FREE vaccine – wonder how many would be lining up screaming for the vaccine before they’re ALL shipped overseas?

    I’ll continue to wear a surgical mask and cotton mask until this epidemic /endemic is long gone!

  38. 360,000 Americans dying every year is not a pandemic? I just read a piece arguing how the US is slipping into becoming a thirld world country, and this post really makes me think i0that argument has some validity.

  39. @Jake, that’s similar to the number dying each year in the U.S. of smoking related causes. We do nothing about it, except prevent those who choose to smoke from doing so in settings where what they do is most likely to harm others. It’s awful that so many are choosing to die of COVID, but how long must the rest of us live a restricted life to try to protect them?

  40. Simple fact is the anti vax crowd are the only reason we are still talking about death rates and hospitalizations. Had everyone gotten the vaccination that could have this issue would be behind us. Covid deaths would haven been very rare and hospitalizations would be brief for the few that do need support. People arguing against that are primarily using either blatant misinformation or distortion of facts to support their position.

  41. I love your blog but you are dead wrong on this and have been all along. The mask mandate for air travel will and should be around for a long time, because COVID will be too. All your arguments are just wishful thinking. And declaring the pandemic effectively over is just naive and reckless. Too many Americans already act like this is true, while the opposite is really the case, and this willful ignorance is fueling the spread. You can’t just wish it away.

  42. From the time we left the house in Atlanta going to Johannesburg starting with Uber airport run-flight-baggage claim-hotel shuttle and check in 21 hours and 40 minutes masked. That was a bit much.
    PS upon check in at the hotel tney sprayed the bottom of our shoes. I had so much hand sanitiser sprayed on me durring the trip that I felt I was sanitising the urinals when I usesd them!

  43. You’re wrong on this. 1K Americans dying every day. Over 30k Americans won’t live to see xmas. the pandemic isn’t going away and people will keep dying until the pill is here. and anyone who can’t create antibodies is still terribly threatened every time they go out.

    wearing a mask in all small spaces with large amounts of people is still the correct and proper fare.

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