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Travel Mask Rules Were Increasingly Absurd and Ignored. Now They Are Gone.
Freedom arrives in the club lounge.
I’ll always remember where I was when the airline mask mandates were lifted: The Delta Sky Club on the B Concourse at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport, on my way home from Coachella. I was drinking a Manhattan — they carry Dolin vermouth at the Sky Club, so they actually make you a decent one — and therefore I already had my mask off.
This was a reflection of the absurdity of the vestigial transportation mask rule: Airports and airplanes were already full of people in low-quality masks, taking them off regularly to eat and drink, and often in no hurry to put them back on when they finished. The unofficial rule in the Sky Club had long seemed to be that you could have your mask off if you were sitting down, even if you weren’t eating or drinking. On airplanes, I observed mask enforcement had fallen off markedly in recent weeks. Mask requirements have been lifted in virtually all other non-healthcare settings; airlines had signaled their strong desire for the mandates to be lifted; and understandably, airline workers were expecting that their professional obligation to argue with passengers over the rule would expire on March 18. But, that wasn’t the case. The Biden administration extended the mandate twice, repeatedly saying it needed more time to study and examine data.
As I sat there with my cocktail, I read Delta’s press release announcing the immediate lifting of mask rules, which reminded everyone to be nice and bear with them as they implemented the sudden change:
Given the unexpected nature of this announcement, please be aware that customers, airline employees and federal agency employees, such as TSA, may be receiving this information at different times. You may experience inconsistent enforcement during the next 24 hours as this news is more broadly communicated — remember to show understanding and patience with others who may not be aware enforcement is no longer required. Communications to customers and in-airport signage and announcements will be updated to share that masking is now optional — this may take a short period of time.
A few minutes later, an announcement came over the PA in the club, incorrectly “reminding” customers that masks are mandatory.
I saw a lot of posts on social media about pilots announcing mid-flight that mask rules had been lifted.1 But on my flight from Atlanta to New York, there was no announcement. Instead, while we were at the gate, the pilot made a point of walking down the aisle with no mask on, successively addressing groups of a few rows at a time to explain that our flight was likely to be very turbulent, and the seat belt sign might be on for most of the flight.
It was a nice display of normalcy. I think Delta CEO Ed Bastian is right that lifting mask rules is an important step toward re-establishing pre-COVID behavior norms where people weren’t so much trouble all the time. It’s good for people to see each other’s faces — it helps us relate to each other as people, remember that we are all human, and maybe not get into stupid-ass arguments in the airplane environments that seem to, for whatever reason, being out terrible behavior in people.
If you’re one of the people warning the airlines that they’ll regret lifting these rules, that customers will be scared away, that the mask rules are actually popular, I’d point out a few things. Even though many people tell pollsters they’re uncomfortable flying, air travel volumes are already back to about 90% of pre-pandemic levels, despite a pilot shortage and still-soft business travel. People are flying. All the major airlines lifted the mask rules as soon as they could. Airline stocks opened markedly higher on Tuesday after they did so. The clear sense of the people who actually have cash on the line is that lifting mask rules is bullish for public interest in flying, not bearish.
A lot of liberals, at least on Twitter, seem to have had a lot of emotional investment in the mask rule — emotional investment that I think makes little sense on its own terms. If you’re worried about transmission, you should be wearing a high-quality mask like an N95 or a KN95 on the plane. A rule that made other people wear low-quality masks for only part of the flight was doing little to help you, and if you were already wearing a good mask, you didn’t need that rule — one-way masking with good masks is highly effective. Mourning the rule we lost yesterday only makes sense if your interest in masks is more about how we should regard COVID than how we should prevent it. That is, if you just liked seeing people forced to make sartorial expressions like your own about how much they care about COVID, then yesterday was indeed a sad day for you.
But the transparent arbitrariness of mask rules was one of the main factors driving cynicism about and resistance to pandemic control measures — when the rules about masks changed from one situation to another with no apparent consistency or link to sensible cost-benefit analysis, of course people concluded that they were being ordered around for no good reason, and they stopped listening. (It certainly didn’t help that so many public officials were spotted breaking the very rules they had imposed.)
The public health establishment still has not grappled with the damage it’s done to its reputation by failing to respect the fact that members of the public have different values and preferences than their own, or to place any value at all on individual freedom. There is a cost to ordering people around all the time, and if you’re too obnoxious about it, your powers to do so will be taken away. This is part of why leaving the transportation mandate in place so long was such a mistake: The more capricious an enforcement measure looks, the more likely it is the courts will find some justification to throw it out.2
So I really don’t understand what Biden administration officials thought they were up to with the repeated extensions of this rule. Certainly, they’re not acting now like the rule was important, and they’re not going to the mat to get it reinstated. Instead, the TSA simply announced — in a statement attributed to no particular official — that the rule was no longer being enforced. Amtrak, a government entity that could have kept its own mask rule, lifted it at the same time the airlines did. Then late on Tuesday, the Department of Justice announced they will appeal the ruling, but only if the CDC seeks to extend the rule past May 3. They still haven’t sought an emergency stay of the ruling, which would seem to undermine the whole conceit that the rule remained urgent and time-sensitive, more than two years after the start of the pandemic.
Biden himself does not appear to buy into the idea that masks on planes are urgently needed. Asked Tuesday whether people should still wear masks on planes, as the CDC still strongly recommends, he just said “that’s up to them.” If he doesn’t think even masks on planes are worth a personal recommendation from him, then why didn’t he tell the CDC to end its use of the force of law to make people wear masks before a court made them?
Maybe he and his top officials actually believe their own rhetoric about being at the mercy of the CDC. That’s also their explanation for their politically insane plan to end the Title 42 rules that restrict the flow of asylum-seekers into the US through Mexico — the CDC told them they had to. In fact, the CDC works for the president, and its experts are here to advise him, not to rule. Biden’s apparent failure to understand that is an incredible display of fecklessness, and it’s causing him serious political problems.
As I mentioned, my flights Monday were back from the Coachella music festival. Insider ran a weirdly negative slideshow about the festival on Monday, emphasizing that it can be hot and dusty and crowded and expensive. Well, that’s true as far as it goes — there are over 100,000 attendees and it’s in the desert. But I had a great time. I drank plenty of water and saw some great music and had fun with friends and observed a lot of people generally seeming to really enjoy themselves.
It was the first Coachella in three years, and it emphasized for me how much we lost through this period of restriction. Human interaction is at the core of life, and since early 2020 we have had to forego so much of what we do to relate to others. For some people, that meant festivals and cultural events and bars and parties. But it was also family gatherings and church and school. Some people (not everyone) even miss going to the office and seeing their co-workers.
To the extent COVID attitudes didn’t align with political views, it often had to do with feelings about in-person interaction: some fairly liberal demographics, like the scenesters described in Brock Colyar’s November 2020 New York feature on the underground parties that thrived in New York during COVID, took stances awfully similar to religious Christians who missed going to church, because those groups placed similar value on gathering in person with their communities.
I think these groups generally had their cost-benefit analyses wrong in 2020 and right in 2021 and 2022 — vaccines and effective therapeutics, plus rising population immunity and changing characteristics of the virus, flipped a lot of cost-benefit questions about COVID and changed what we ought to do more than they changed people’s attitudes about what we ought to do. I wasn't going to any of those underground parties in 2020, to be clear.
But the resistance to activity restrictions that arose almost from day one contained important and accurate information — people value normal, they value seeing other people, they value literally seeing people’s faces. A handful of neurotic epidemiologists excepted, we are a social people. COVID rules have not been trivial. They have been onerous, and they could not have continued forever, or even until “COVID is REALLY done,” whatever that means. People would not have stood for it.
And instead of being bitter and scoldy, the pandemic-forever advocates should consider how they differ from most people, what makes their values unusual, and why they’re never going to be able to force the rest of the public to feel the way they do. They should especially do this if they have actual expertise they’d like people to listen to sometime in the future — after all, being right isn’t going to do you any good next time if people ignore you and think you suck.
James Fallows indignantly demanded that one Alaska Airlines pilot be counseled by his supervisors for having the temerity to call the mask announcement “the most important announcement I’ve ever made” — a good demonstration of liberals’ transformation into an HR-style movement, constantly trying to get people in trouble for not sharing their exact values and perspectives.
I think critics of the court decision are right to say it’s too broad and not very well reasoned. Such is life: hard cases make bad law, and when you overuse your legal authorities on public health you invite the courts to slap you around in ways that might not necessarily seem fair.