What the mask extension really means for you
The TSA will require face coverings for public transportation until May 3, but the mandate may last much longer
If I had a dollar for every time a travel "expert" predicted the federal mask mandate would end on April 18, I could probably retire today. But that didn't happen, and I am still eking out a living as a travel writer.
Instead, the TSA announced a two-week extension until May 3. Face coverings on public transportation conveyances and hubs will remain mandatory until then. We had a spirited debate about the government’s decision in our Friday Forum (members only).
If you were hoping to lose the masks, here's more bad news: The mandate may get extended again. CDC is worried about the BA.2 subvariant that now makes up more than 85 percent of U.S. cases. Since early April, there have been increases in the seven-day moving average of COVID-19 cases in the United States. If it spreads, we could be looking at more mask mandates lasting into the summer.
Oh, I know. Haven't we discussed masks enough in this newsletter?
Maybe not. You know how everyone keeps saying we have to learn to live with COVID? I think we also need to learn to live with masks. And that's particularly true for travelers. Even if the mask requirements disappear this summer in the States, you'll have to deal with face-covering requirements outside the country.
There is no escape from the masks.
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Masks are no fun, but …
I get it. Masks are uncomfortable. I just flew from Istanbul to Nevsehir, Turkey, and halfway through the one-hour flight, I had difficulty breathing through my mask. It must have been the dry cabin air. Fortunately, the flight attendants were serving drinks, so I lowered my face covering to sip water slowly.
I've heard other passengers say they can't handle masking on public transportation. Slightly more than 12 percent of Americans suffer from claustrophobia, which means that about 1 in 10 passengers can't wait to get off the plane, rip the mask off, and breathe the free air.
According to the World Health Organization, you should use a mask as part of a comprehensive strategy to suppress COVID transmission. About half of my readers don't buy that, even though it comes from experts in the field.
Here's how I see it: Airplane seat belts are uncomfortable, too. And I've never personally seen a seat belt help anyone, never talked to anyone saved by a seat belt. But no one argues against these common-sense safety measures. If there's a chance that face masks can keep flying safer, then why wouldn't we take it?
In fact, I know a lot of cautious travelers who will continue to mask up even if the government tells us we don't have to.
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Here's what airlines will probably do
My prediction for the future of air travel is that even if airline passengers don't have to mask up, airlines will still strongly urge them to do it. I just spent an afternoon touring the Turkish Airlines catering facilities at the new Istanbul airport. I watched thousands of amenity kits with face masks get packed onto planes.
Even if the Turkish government lifts its mask mandate, the airline will probably continue to pass out amenity kits with hand sanitizer and face masks. And it will encourage passengers to use them. I've spoken with airline CEOs who tell me the same thing: The masks are here to stay.
I'm starting to see masks and seat belts in the same way. You'll probably never need them, especially between takeoff and landing when they are not required. But you should consider keeping them on during the flight, just in case. If you and other passengers are wearing masks, you'll be protected from a week or more of post-flight misery.
You are free to continue believing masks are useless. You are free to call them face diapers. You may even be in the majority. Attitudes change slowly. A 1984 Gallup poll showed that 65% of Americans opposed mandatory seat belt laws in vehicles, too. But over time, drivers began to understand that seat belts saved lives. Now, practically no one questions the wisdom of seat belt requirements in cars — or on planes.
And now that I think about it, maybe airlines should continue requiring face masks as a matter of policy, even if they don't have to. But I will probably get myself into trouble with half of my readers for saying that out loud, so I probably shouldn't.
Don't get your hopes up for a quick release
But back to the here and now. The latest mask mandate expires May 3. I think the government will be cautious — very cautious — about undoing this mandate. If the subvariant spreads, we'll see a 15-day extension, and if the infection rate doesn't go down, we might see another extension.
In other words, don't get your hopes up for a quick release. It might not happen next month. Or even this summer.
But even if it does, there's a good chance your airline will urge you to mask up in much the same way it encourages you to keep your seat belts on during the flight, just in case you encounter unexpected turbulence. Is it inconvenient to wear your seat belt for the entire flight? Sure. But if you hit clear-air turbulence, you'll be glad you did.
And even if your airline stops handing out masks and tells you to do whatever you want — should you? I would urge you to look at your own experience before answering.
Here's mine: Before COVID, I routinely got sick after my flights. Often, there was someone a row in front of me, sneezing and coughing. And then, predictably, I was out of commission for the next week, with whatever my fellow passenger had. But after the mask mandates, I never got sick, not once.
The mask mandate extension gives all of us 15 more days to think about face coverings. Are we better off masking on public transportation for the good of everyone? Or should we go back to the way it was, pre-pandemic?
I know which direction I'm leaning in. How about you?
About the art
For this work, artist Dustin Elliott found inspiration in the visual signaling of authoritarian social justice activism. "My campus is fanatically saturated in post-modern ideology," he says. "This anti-democratic disease is represented by the colors blue and red. These go hand-in-hand with outrage and anger in this mask wearer's eyes." Call it what you want: classism, elitism, or digital privilege — to him, it's all anger.