How long will the US government require travelers to wear masks in the pandemic? The CDC’s new recommendation for an extension of the mandates on trains and commercial flights suggests that the answer could be forever. At least, an extension at this point on the curve strongly suggests that there isn’t any spot on it that will prompt a reassessment:
President Joe Biden’s administration will extend requirements for travelers to wear masks on airplanes, trains and in transit hubs through April 18 as public health authorities review when mask requirements should be dropped, an administration official told Reuters.
The move, which is expected be announced later on Thursday, extends the current requirements that were set to expire March 18 by a month. The official told Reuters that over the next month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will work with government agencies “to help inform a revised policy framework for when, and under what circumstances, masks should be required in the public transportation corridor.”
The Transportation Security Administration extension comes at the CDC’s recommendation. Airline and some government officials think this could be the last nationwide extension of the mask requirements.
Airlines and travel groups last month called on the administration by March 18 to “repeal the Federal mask mandate for public transportation or provide a clear roadmap to remove the mask mandate within 90 days.”
At least thus far, the CDC has not explained its reasoning. Its travel guidance on mask mandates for transportation last got updated two weeks ago. At that time, the CDC did not provide any metrics for mandate off-ramps, nor did they explain any specific benefit of keeping mask mandates in place. The only added justification for the amended guidance keeping the mandate in place was that the mandate had already been in place, but otherwise relied on the same general justification on which the CDC has relied all along:
Travel contributes to interstate and international spread of COVID-19. Wearing masks that completely cover the mouth and nose reduces the spread of COVID-19. People who never develop symptoms (asymptomatic) or are not yet showing symptoms (pre-symptomatic) might not know that they are infected but can still spread COVID-19 to others. Masks also offer protection to the wearer.
There’s little doubt that travel can amplify COVID-19 waves. We saw that in the fall and winter of both 2020 and 2021, but those were part of waves that were already in progress and taking place in cold weather. Masking didn’t tamp that down either, and masking wasn’t the reason why those waves came to an end even with the travel industry still operating on the same basis.
That doesn’t apply now, either. We’ve come out the other side of the Omicron wave across the board, even by the CDC’s data on cases:
We’re on the downside of the curve on deaths too, but that has a big caveat:
Those numbers look high, but remember that these are COVID-correlated deaths, not COVID-caused deaths. The CDC still has not implemented its proposed restrictions on reporting that would narrow down these metrics to only deaths and hospital admissions caused by a COVID-19 infection. With a variant as transmissible and as mild as Omicron, one can expect many more correlated-but-not-causative cases, admissions, and deaths. In other words, this isn’t a reliable measure of the actual impact and level of seriously acute COVID-19 cases.
And even while counting correlative admissions rather than restricting the metrics to only causative admissions, hospital utilization has plummeted too:
Supposedly, this is the real metric that drives CDC guidelines now. Their new guideline on masking in public places still has too much ambiguity, but at least they’re tying it to hospital utilizations (while still including correlative diagnoses). This shows the utilization curve at its lowest, so … why keep the mask mandates in place?
Because the true metric appears to be what unions want, rather than what the science says:
The union for flight attendants at several major air carriers expects the federal government to extend face mask requirements on commercial airplanes beyond next month’s expiration date, even with pressure growing against mask mandates on planes, airports and elsewhere.
Unions for flight attendants at American Airlines, United Airlines and several regional carriers say there are reasons to keep wearing face masks, although they are “looking forward to a time when face coverings are no longer a requirement for air travel.”
“While more of the world now has access to lifesaving vaccines, we still have a significant portion of the population that are vulnerable, including our youngest passengers,” said Paul Hartshorn, a spokesman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents about 24,550 employees at Fort Worth-based American Airlines.
This is utter nonsense. Their “youngest passengers” have surpassingly low risk for developing acute cases of COVID-19. Even without vaccination, their risks are lower than those for vaccinated adults. Masks are particularly difficult impositions on small children as well, which makes them and everyone around them miserable for no real benefit at all. This isn’t about science, but about fear and political power.
If flight attendants want to wear masks, they are free to do so. The same goes for passengers who fly on those planes. No one should be forced to take off their masks, but by the same token, no one should now be forced to wear one, either. There is no scientific basis for this mandate that offers any logical sense except as another step toward making mask mandates permanent in air and rail travel. If we can’t stop the mandate now, there will never be enough “science” to convince the CDC otherwise.