With a single ruling earlier this week, a U.S. District Judge suddenly unmasked Americans traveling by air, train, bus, and other public transportation—or at least she enabled their unmasking.
Viral videos—like one of a flight attendant serenading passengers as she came through the aisle to collect masks—reflected the elation some people feel about traveling mask-free.
Yet despite vocal proponents of the new rule, several polls suggest a majority of the public isn’t ready for masks to come off.
An early April Harris Poll showed that 60% of Americans supported extending air travel mask mandates.
A recent flash poll conducted by OnePulse just before the ruling also found that 60% of respondents believed the government should extend mask mandates. Nonetheless, 61% said they would wear masks voluntarily if mandates ended.
“I will absolutely continue masking up on public transport, particularly because I won’t have any idea if the other passengers without masks are even vaccinated,” said Lindsey Bailys, 32, a New York City-based healthcare public relations professional. “Though I fully understand the desire to return to some kind of normalcy, I wish it didn’t have to be at the expense of others’ health and well-being.”
Don Orkoskey, 42, a professional photographer in Pittsburgh, PA, shares this concern for others.
“My wife and I along with most people we know still wear masks in public,” he said. “We’re relatively young and healthy but we don’t know who we could help kill should we start pretending it’s all over.”
Not So Fast, Many Say
The mask mandate reversal comes just as some people were getting more comfortable with the idea of flying again.
Rachel Needle, PsyD, licensed psychologist and executive director of Whole Health Psychological Center, had made plans to fly to a conference next week but now says she finds the prospect of being in a packed plane close to others without masks terrifying.
“Even for those who think they are healthy and have nothing to worry about if they get Covid, they can still transmit it to others who might not be so lucky,” said Needle, who had a rough time with Covid-19 late in 2020. “What each of us does individually impacts others…potentially even the lives of others.”
If Needle does go, she says she’ll double mask and may wear a face shield.
A majority (65%) of respondents in a survey conducted by Clearcover just after the ruling said mask mandates made them feel more comfortable with flying. More said they plan to fly this year than last.
But the breaking news that the mask mandates had been struck down was not welcomed by many. Forty-three percent said ending mandates made them less comfortable with domestic and international flights.
“The latest news about the lifting of the mask mandate for travelers has got me squirming in my seat,” said Emily Cooper, founder of menswear brand Oliver Wicks. “It may be interpreted as a step closer to normalcy, but I think the risks outweigh the benefits at this point.”
That return to normalcy, which so many crave, is actually stressing people out, according to Jennifer Kowalski, a Licensed Professional Counselor at Thriveworks in Cheshire, Connecticut.
“In the short time since the announcement that mask mandates were dropping on planes and other transport, I’m already seeing anxiety increasing and will expect it to continue,” Kowalski said.
Kowalski said she sees clients struggling to re-engage in normal public activities and expects the lifting of restrictions to influence some people’s travel decisions.
Clearcover’s survey bears that out. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of respondents said they were likely or very likely to change their travel plans because of the mask mandate reversal and 42% said the news makes them less likely to fly if they do travel.
Parents of kids too young to be vaccinated were substantially more likely than average to anticipate changing their travel plans. Baby Boomers (aged 58 to 76) and parents of kids under 18 were also more likely to be hesitant to fly without mask mandates.
Only 19% of respondents said not having to wear a mask would make them more likely to fly.
Some people excited by the latest ruling said they firmly believe masks don’t work. That is not the case.
Masks are an important risk reduction strategy, according to Dr. Ryan Maves, professor of infectious diseases at Wake Forest School of Medicine and chair of the Covid-19 Task Force with the American College of Chest Physicians.
“No one enjoys wearing masks, but we live in a society with vulnerable people,” Maves said, speaking as a board-certified physician in infectious disease, internal medicine, and critical care medicine. “Until this pandemic is completely in the rear view mirror, masking and vaccines are two of our best tools to protect ourselves and our vulnerable neighbors.”
Americans Agree: Fewer Masks Raise Risks
Three-quarters (74%) of respondents in the Clearcover survey agreed that lifting mask mandates will increase their chance of contracting Covid-19; 68% believe that terminating the federal mask mandates will put their family at greater risk and 56% believe it will increase their risk of being hospitalized.
“I’m horrified that a federal judge struck down mask mandates for travelers,” said Tonia Kendrick, 54, a small business owner from Chatsworth, Georgia. “The virus is still raging in many parts of the country, and masks are our best line of defense against it. Dropping the mandate sends a dangerous message that we can let our guard down when in reality we need to be more vigilant than ever.”
For Katy Shaw, 45, a Seattle-based travel blogger at a Rambling Unicorn, the latest ruling likely means she’ll get sick more often. A frequent traveler with an autoimmune disease, Shaw said she used to dread flying because she almost always got sick.
“I can’t tell you how many vacations or work trips I’ve spent sick in my hotel room because I caught something on the plane,” Shaw said.
Since the mask mandates have been in place, Shaw hasn’t gotten sick once, even on multiple international flights.
“It’s been life changing for me,” she said.
Flying in spite of the risks may be the new reality, though the Justice Department is appealing the ruling.
“I believe air travel will continue to increase as we move from a pandemic to endemic posture,” said Stan Caldwell, associate professor of transportation and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College.
People on both sides of the mask debate see a potential silver lining in the new ruling: less conflict.
Dan Biederman, president of Biederman Redevelopment Ventures and executive director of the Bryant Park Corp. says he has taken 34 business trip since the pandemic began and is looking forward to the comfort of traveling without a mask.
“Not being able to hear anyone debate this issue for 25 months makes the end of the mandate even more welcome,” he said.
Marianne Sarcich, a breast health patient advocate based in Delaware, thinks it’s too soon to lift the mask mandates but hopes the upside will be the end of hostilities from air travelers who don’t want to wear masks but have been required to do so.
“I don’t know which is more frightening,” Sarcich said. “The risk of getting Covid-19 or the risk of being harmed by violent passengers who don’t want to wear a mask.”