The federal transportation mask mandate was set to expire March 18. That was delayed by a month, even though CDC guidance on masks was that nearly everyone in the country could stop wearing masks indoors.
Now the April 18th expiration is being pushed back by two weeks. A two week extension shows that the Administration wants the mandate to end but is scared to do it. The extension is meant to “monitor for any observable increase in severe virus outcomes as cases rise in parts of the country..out of abundance of caution.”
But in two weeks,
- It’s likely cases will be higher than they are today. That’s not a huge problem with a less virulent strain, with vaccines and treatments that protect against bad outcomes, as well as so much background immunity from prior infection already.
- But it may be too early to see much change in hospitalization data. Cases overall in the country are only days into rising (while they’ve been rising in the Northeast for longer). Two weeks of data may not give them the information that lets them ‘have permission’ to let the mandate lapse.
That would suggest they might extend it again for another few weeks to see what’s happening and get more data. If they’re afraid of what happens next, that’s not likely to change in two weeks.
Now, a two week extension is also likely the most they could agree on internally given pressure to lift mandates as we head into summer, in time to be a part of positive narratives going into midterm elections. There’s a lot of pressure to end the mandate, when people aren’t wearing masks in much of the country indoors, where the Senate (Democrat-controlled, and with some D-votes) passed legislation to lift the mandate though that legislation has zero chance of being taken up by the House.
A two week extension is a cop out. It frames the issue as though it were some sort of meaningful firewall against spread when It doesn’t actually do anything to wear masks on planes and almost nowhere else. That doesn’t meaningfully affect spread (even if people voluntarily wore N95 masks on planes instead of cloth masks) and it doesn’t meaningfully affect hospitalizations. It’s a strange place to focus on while indoor concerns, restaurants and bars continue apace.
It’s political fear, ultimately, and not scientific judgment that dictates when the mandate gets lifted. So the relevant question is whether two weeks from now the Administration’s fear of the midterms will outweigh their fear of ‘being wrong’ about the direction of the pandemic and being blamed for lifting a restriction that did little to alter the course of the pandemic in the first place.