Buttigieg on mask mandates: There's a difference between the White House Correspondents Dinner and an airplane

There is a difference. The difference is that the WHCD is reserved for the glitterati while air travel is open to schlubs of every stripe. And only one of those two groups is typically “managed” with mandates.

Secretary Pete rarely looks caught off-guard by a question but Bret Baier managed to pull it off last night. Why are you and Biden attending an event with superspreader potential this weekend that doesn’t require masks, Baier asked, while you’re fighting in court to require masking on planes and trains? “Most of us understand the difference between a hotel ballroom and an airplane,” a glib Buttigieg replied, not really answering.

The difference between a crowded ballroom and a crowded airplane is that the airplane is certainly safer. Do “most of us” truly understand that? Watch.

The irony of this whiff is that he had a decent response available to him, which is that the WHCD is requiring all attendees to show proof of a negative test taken that day. If tests were 100 percent accurate, guests at Saturday night’s event could rest assured that they’re at no risk of infection whether or not they wear a mask.

But they’re not 100 percent accurate. In a ballroom filled with 2,000 people, we should expect a few to be infected despite their negative result. Maybe more than a few, as false negatives from rapid tests aren’t uncommon in the age of Omicron. More than 70 people ended up infected after the recent Gridiron Dinner (which foolishly didn’t demand proof of a same-day negative test), strong evidence of how dangerous a crowded indoor space can be. It’s anyone’s guess how many will walk away from the WHCD with COVID.

Airlines don’t require proof of a negative test for domestic travel but planes have something important that ballrooms lack. Namely, top-notch ventilation.

How safe is flying? Numerous studies on that question have been published in the months since the pandemic brought travel to a halt in March. Many of them suggest that the risk of contracting coronavirus while flying is very low…

Most planes recycle 25 to 30 percent of cabin air. The air being recycled passes through the H.E.P.A. filter which traps virus particles. The other 70 to 75 percent of air is evacuated overboard every couple of minutes, meaning there is new air in the cabin every two to five minutes, depending on the size of the plane.

“The air circulation on a plane is better than in an office building, better than your apartment because the air is changed more times per hour — most planes change several times per hour, plus it’s filtered, which isn’t the case in your office or apartment,” Dr. Freedman said.

I take it that when Buttigieg hand-waved away the difference between ballrooms and airline cabins, he meant that the former is more spacious than the latter and that those inside have more space between them. That’s true, as quarters don’t get more cramped than coach on an airplane. But guests at the WHCD won’t be *that* far apart. Figure the tables at the event are six feet in diameter with 10 or so guests seated at each one. That’s plenty close enough for aerosol exchange among them. And guests spend only part of the evening in their seats; before the speeches are made, they’re working the room, gladhanding VIPs and saying hi to friends.

Imagine the din as 2,000 people move around an interior space, all schmoozing simultaneously. They’ll have to speak more loudly than usual to be heard, which means viral particles in their throats will be projected further than usual. On a plane, by contrast, people talk in whispers or not at all if they’re not sitting with friends or family. In which setting would you rather take your chances with infection?

The organizers of the WHCD were offered some extra technological help recently to try to neutralize the viral particles in the room. They turned it down.

But Milton, the University of Maryland expert, said he had urged organizers to do more by installing lights that would actively clean the air. “When you gather that many people together, you’ve really got to have highly effective air sanitation systems. Just ventilation and filtration aren’t enough,” Milton said.

After dozens of coronavirus infections were linked to the Gridiron Club dinner three weeks ago, Milton said, he had reached out to the correspondents’ association and arranged a conversation with a vendor, Far UV, that would have temporarily set up more than 100 devices at the Washington Hilton. Those ranged from small gadgets that resemble smoke detectors to portable lamps that can be set up around a room.

But WHCA officials said the conversations came too late in their planning, and that they feared the lights might irritate the eyes of attendees, interfere with servers trying to navigate the ballroom — and even make someone like Biden look blue when he addressed the crowd.

For the White House, the name of the game at this event is “normalcy.” They’re eager to show swing voters that Democrats (well, some Democrats) aren’t trapped in a “mandates forever” mentality. I wonder how normal the vibe is going to be, though, if next week newspapers are reporting that 200 people or whatever came away from the dinner infected.

Exit question: What did Buttigieg mean when he said that the decision to wear a mask on a plane is “up to you now”? It’s only up to you because the White House hasn’t won its appeal yet!