When There’s Enough Vaccine For Everyone, Air Travel Mask Rules Should End

I’ve been a proponent of masks since the beginning of the pandemic, when health authorities were advising against them. They do not offer total protection, but there’s some benefit. Quality masks, properly worn, are one measure that helps limit spread of viruses. I’ve argued that conservatives should embrace masks as the small government alternative to lock downs.

Airlines instituted mask requirements to give customers confidence being around other people in close proximity. The bet is that asking someone to mask wasn’t much of a burden compared to the benefit of knowing that everyone else was masked.

Nearly a year into the pandemic, new President Biden ordered his CDC to institute a mask requirement for transportation. This made airline rules a federal rule, while introducing a new exemption for those who couldn’t wear a mask for medical reasons. Airlines have made jumping through the hoops to use that exemption burdensome.

Masks made sense on planes when, together with HEPA air filtration and downward air flow, they reduced the risk of catching Covid-19 on a plane.

Now vaccines are available. We’re going to have challenges keeping people masked up once they’ve been vaccinated. The rule needs to stay in place now, when most Americans haven’t had a chance to become vaccinated yet. It’s tough to know who has been vaccinated and who hasn’t been.

And with vaccines scarce there was a concern that someone who had been vaccinated might still spread the virus to someone else. That concern was likely overblown. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, for instance, has shown 94% effectiveness against asymptomatic Covid-19 meaning that someone doesn’t show symptoms but might still have and transmit the virus.

All of the approved vaccines have been nearly perfect against severe Covid, hospitalization, and death. That’s what we care about. Vaccines mean hospitals not being overrun, so that people who do get Covid-19 and need treatment can get quality care.

I plan to wear a(n N95) mask when I travel during flu season. I used to think about it, but it wasn’t really socially acceptable. That’s changed, and it’s a good thing. Masking and distancing didn’t stop the winter Covid-19 surge, but it did seem to stop the flu which doesn’t spread quite as easily.

But that’s a voluntary choice. Restrictions won’t be justified when everyone who wants a vaccine can get one. It will be months before kids under 16 can get vaccinated but the risk to them is lower than to an average vaccinated adult anyway.

All U.S. adults are expected to become eligible for a vaccine in May. That doesn’t mean there will be enough supply for everyone to have an appointment that day. But soon we’ll be asking and coaxing people to get vaccinated. When anyone who wants one can get one and be largely protected, and when most travelers have some form of immunity from prior infection or vaccination, the mandate should end.

It is certainly possible that a new variant of the virus will escape vaccines, and spread widely, becoming a thread to hospital capacity. If what’s theoretical now becomes a reality, it might be necessary to re-impose a mask rule – until booster vaccine doses are widely available targeting these new mutations.

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. […] While mask wearing does seem to provide some protection, and I have favored mask wearing since the beginning of the pandemic, its benefits are frequently exaggerated. And while studies of this issue continue, significant evidence suggests that very young children do not spread the virus nearly as often as older children or adults. When there’s enough vaccine so that anyone who wants a shot can get one, we should life mask rules. […]

Comments

  1. Masks were common on flights to japan long before COVID. I hope they become socially acceptable as a general way to prevent the spread of any infection even just the sniffles.

  2. I’d expect it, but paired with a short-term requirement that unvaccinated people must present a negative COVID test before boarding. If we can’t get to herd immunity with just encouragement, little things like that will get many holdouts to go out and get vaccinated.

  3. Got my first shot today. And I intend to continue wearing my mask/sanitize my hands when travelling even after my 2nd shot. I think it is a good practice in general esplly during flu season. They do that in Japan for a long time now. We can learn from them.

  4. righto, Ben!

    Gary, what do you do with the 40% of the population who refuses to be vaxxed? How long will we be forced to wear masks because of that group? BTW, the joke is on them: they are, for the most part, anti mask, but by refusing to be vaxxeded they’re going to prolong the agony of wearing masks for all of us.

  5. Covid is likely now endemic, some areas may drive it down with masking and vaccines but in others it will persist and mutate enough to come back for another round. When are we opening up flights to Africa where there is a strain more resistant to our vaccines? Once we’re all vaccinated were good no?

  6. As far as the flu goes, I wonder how much travel restrictions kept flu levels down as opposed to general mask wearing and fly vaccines. Usually, the flu in the southern hemisphere moves north. The few people who could travel between hemispheres typically had to wear masks, but would be the people who could take the fly elsewhere.

  7. I agree – but you should only be allowed to fly if you’ve been vaccinated (yes, I know there are proof problems.)

    The vaccines aren’t 100% perfect – except that a vaccinated person has close to a 100% chance of not getting infected from another vaccinated person. So a plane full of unmasked vaccinated people poses no risk to anyone. A planed full of vaccinated and unvaccinated people puts the vaccinated people at some risk – given that the MRNA vaccines are only about 94% effective, and the Johnson and Johnson is somewhere in the 70’s.

  8. @Robert says: “So a plane full of unmasked vaccinated people poses no risk to anyone. A planed full of vaccinated and unvaccinated people puts the vaccinated people at some risk – given that the MRNA vaccines are only about 94% effective, and the Johnson and Johnson is somewhere in the 70’s.”

    I hadn’t thought of it that way. Very interesting.

  9. @robert Until everyone has had equal opportunity to get the vaccine that isn’t going to be an option..

  10. @nick I wouldn’t want the vaccine requirement in place until such time as everyone has had a chance to get the vaccine – which should be in May or earlier.

  11. I couldn’t agree with you more! And yes I also plan to wear masks through flu season. This is the first year I haven’t gotten sick…. at all…. in my adult life.

  12. Bad advise, for this reason. There are way too many non-vaxers. If this vaccination resistance continues, we may never get to herd immunity. That is bringing about these variants. The more people that actually get the virus, brings about more mutations. It is a vicious cycle. I am vaccinated, but I will still wear a mask. I have not had a cold since Feb. 2020. Every time I fly, I get a cold. Wearing a mask is so helpful. We may be wearing masks for another year. Don’t even allude about not having to wear masks! Leave this medical experts!

  13. I disagree. I believe that mask requirements should be periodically re-assessed but that, for now, masks should be required until at least December 31, 2021. My guess is that I will be wearing N95 masks until spring 2023 and paper masks some time beyond that.

  14. @deerk – what’s magic about December 31? We’re likely to have more Covid circulating in the winter than we do this summer

  15. @JohnB – covid circulating is bad, people not getting vaccinated is bad, but once everyone CAN dose why do you need to mask? You’re likely not putting them at much risk anyway, nor are you at much risk yourself. Because you still have a small chance of getting Covid? Ok, but masks weren’t required for cold and flu season before. And for most people who are vaccinated, getting symptomatic Covid becomes like getting cold or flu.

  16. When mask rules end, you are still free to wear an N95 mask to protect yourself. If you have been vaccinated and wear an N95 mask, the risk to you from an unmasked fellow passenger is nearly zero. Thus you have no reason to demand that he/she wear a mask.

  17. I won’t be going out of my way to help the anti-vaxxers. As long as the healthcare system doesn’t get overrun, let them get sick.

  18. @Bill, I agree, and I’ll go one step further: if these anti-vaxxers get sick with Covid and end up in ICU for weeks, who pays the bill? Really piss*s me off.

  19. Gary asks what’s the magic with December 31. It’s a way of saying that any hope of this summer or this fall is none. December 31 is an easy date to remember rather than March 31. Come October 30, if Covid-19 is still rip roaring, then the December 31, 2021 date of mask requirement can be extended to December 31, 2022.

  20. “All of the approved vaccines have been nearly perfect against severe Covid, hospitalization, and death. That’s what we care about. ” “someone should tell Dr. Gary about all the people (10% of people at this point) who had mild covid cases that didn’t require hospitalization but have been suffering long term effects of having covid. Some of them have been suffering for over a year. They call them covid long haulers. Look it up Gary because I am sure they would have a few choice words about your ignorance in saying that the only concerns are hospitalizations and death when it comes to covid.

    ” Masking and distancing didn’t stop the winter Covid-19 surge” actually masking and social distancing has been shown to work. Covid spread because people were NOT masking and were NOT social distancing.

    “Restrictions won’t be justified when everyone who wants a vaccine can get one. ” How do you figure that??? Just because everyone can get a vaccine doesn’t mean everyone will. There is a sizeable number of people who are refusing to get a vaccine, so its ok for them to go maskless and keep spreading the virus? You do understand the vaccines aren’t 100% effective right? Which means that some maskless anti-vaxxer can still infect a person who has been vaccinated. If everyone is vaccinated then yes we wouldn’t need masks, but your claims that as long as everyone can get a vaccine we don’t need masks is a complete joke. By the way we have no idea how long antibodies from a prior infection last. What we know is they are much less reliable than the vaccine. By the way there is a variant already spreading in NY that there is real concern about that it may be evading the vaccine and also reinfecting people who had covid before.

  21. Who honestly cares. You can take your mask off for so many reasons on a plane. This kabuki theater is a joke. If you are paranoid, wear the mask, But most of these mask restrictions are going to end simply because people are tired of them and businesses only care about making money.

    As for why they wear masks in Asian counties – I suggest some of you do a little research. It isn’t to prevent the flu. Seeing the same incorrect information repeatedly posted shows how uninformed everyone here is.

  22. Gary, it’ll be years until everyone is vaccinated, since they are just now starting to recruit volunteers for the first round of child testing. Moderna is the only one starting it so far, and they already said that the timeline will be several months of the first phase, and then a full year of the blind phase where they do a mix of placebo/vaccine.

    Assuming both those phases go according to plan, it would be 2023 at the earliest before children can receive the Moderna shot, and I’m guessing Pfizer/AZ/J&J will be similar timelines.

  23. I will definitely *continue* wearing mask in planes and airports after the mandate is lifted. I used to have to live through 3 – 4 sinus infections per year, and haven’t had one since Covid started.

    Probably the best long-term gain from the pandemic is learning what the Japanese and Koreans (and some Chinese) already figured out years ago, that masking truly works!

  24. What exactly do you mean by “enough vaccine for everyone”?

    Enough vaccine for the country? Enough vaccine for the region? Enough vaccine for the world?

  25. Masking on longer flights actually helps the respiratory system ward off the drying effects of longer airline flights. Using a mask retains moisture in the nose and throat, allowing me to arrive more refreshed and less likely to have a bloody nose.

    JAL has called them moisture masks and has always had them in amenity kits and available on request. There was no stigma attached to using them or not.

  26. Is there a single peer reviewed paper that actually shows any correlation with mask wearing and decrease in cases?

    I haven’t seen one.
    The CDC and WHO don’t have any on their sites.

    It’s like a flat earth convention – where everyone says ‘of course masks work’ – even though a year of data shows no correlation with there use and cases.

    And there is no scientific study that actually shows this either.

  27. Tennesse is opening up vaccinations to all over 16 this Friday. Mississippi has already done that. We’re both 70 so got ours in early Feb. We love cruising and just saw announcements of cruises from Caribbean ports and Bahamas but everyone ove 16 has to be vaccinated and the islands require from everyone a negative covid test within 72 hr before landing and US requires the same when returning. International airlines are considering proof of vaccination. I have our proof of vaccination with travel items like passport and global entry card.

  28. Yeah, good luck trying to get a vaccine from the Washington DC local government.

    First it was over 65 and high risk jobs…. ok I get it but they had to provide extensive documentation.

    Then they opened it to 18-65 with certain pre existing conditions but ZERO documentation…so basically a free for all.

    Then the website crashed 4 times in a week….there was no waiting list.

    Then local news reported that 40% of all vaccinations given were to non residents….40 PERCENT!

    Meanwhile, VA and MD reciprocated DC with 8,000 doses.

    I’m 60 with pre existing conditions and have been waiting ever since.

    But yeah, the local government is now flying AMERICAN flags with 51 stars in support of statehood……DC can’t even run a city but go ahead and give us statehood.

  29. @M.O. Thankfully you are not correct about the timing of trials for minors. 1) Pfizer’s vaccine is already approved for 16+, which covers a decent bit of the minor population. 2) Pfizer has finished enrolling 12-15 year olds in its trial. So both Moderna and Pfizer are into their trials for 12+, and both hope to have data to present to the FDA for EUAs by this summer. The trials will function differently from the adult trials and will not rely on confirmed covid tests, but will instead measure safety and the immune response itself.

    Generally though, I agree with you that minors under the age of 16 will not be able to be vaccinated for months and maybe not at all in 2021. The timeline for <12 is even less clear.

  30. @Bill, excellent point about Covid long-termers. My neighbors’ 20-something son has had bad dizzy spells for over six months since contracting Covid.

    What with1) variants a fact of life, which will be increasingly the case due to anti-vaxxers, 2) the fact that this is such a new disease we’re far from full understanding, 3) even a moderate case of COVID is far worse than the flu, and 4) non-vaccinated folks have a far greater chance of spreading the disease to vaccinated people, keeping the mask requirement in place makes loads of sense.

  31. Reading some of the comments here. So, my vaccination works better if you’re vaccinated? What is this moonshine? See, this is what adds to more doubts about the vaccine.

    If you truly believe in the vaccine and the studies, once you’re vaccinated, then you should be more or less good, about 94%, whether or not others around you are vaccinated. If you say that the vax will not protect you in this way, then you really are not confident in its effectiveness. It would be like saying, “I’ll put on a raincoat and you should, too, so I do not get wet.” That, or it is not a good enough vaccine.

    And not all people who refuse this vaccine are anti-vaxxers. Some have safety concerns about THIS vaccine only, being that it is currently only authorized for emergency use (EUA), versus officially FDA-approved. Yes, it has gone through multi-phases of trials with promising results but for some, for valid personal reasons, having an official FDA-approval matters, and that should not be taken against them. I believe this is also the reason why as of now, they cannot make this vaccination mandatory because is only under EUA. There is currently no FDA-approved vaccine.

    Be careful wishing for anything mandatory. Think of the precedent it sets. Today it’s masks, harmless enough. Next vaccinations? Then what else could they mandate you to put into your body?

  32. Correction: I meant to say, “There is currently no FDA-approved *Covid19* vaccine.”

  33. @airgypsy Pfizer is hoping to submit its Biologics License Application in April. It will probably take a month or more for them to get the response, but there will be at least one fully-licensed covid-19 by the end of 2021, if not much sooner.

  34. Everybody talks about adults, anybody under 16 will not get a vaccine until earliest next year, thus this illness will be around for infections until at least May, June of next year most likely later.
    Masks will be part of the airport landscape till at least till 2023, after that everybody will have discovered that it will keep away some viruses by wearing it while traveling. Yes, u can not see the pretty face behind it but everybody should get over it and not make it an issue of any kind. It is what it is, antivaxxer, so be it, anti masker, your stuck, either wear it or don’t travel. Businesses will drive the decisions, all thinks equal, I would not want to fly with an antivaxxer but since I would wear a mask I could accept the anti masker. That what I will believe countries will choose as well if they are smart.

  35. I get my 1st dose on Saturday. I don’t leave the house often, so I’ll be wearing a mask where it’s required. My Hubby got his last week, and our son is only 11. That said, I hope people in other countries will behave better. I’m headed to Greece on August 10th, and never thought about wearing a mask on a long-haul. Yes, I booked Polaris, but in 5 months I do hope those of us vaccinated can avoid masks in August. Those long flights are difficult to get through. But even more worrying is trying to see places and swim, snorkel, etc. Those masks will be stifling in August. I guess all I can do is wait and see. My hubby had NO plans to take the vaccine, but he got a call with an appointment so he just decided last minute. We’ve got to appeal to the anti-Vaxers to protect themselves and their neighbors.

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