Editor’s Note: Kent Sepkowitz is a physician and infection control expert at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN. The piece has been updated to reflect the latest news.
Once again, the shifting winds of the Covid-19 pandemic have placed the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a pickle. Last month, in the (very brief) good old days after the original Omicron variant had settled, the agency had indicated that, on April 18, it would reevaluate the mask-wearing mandate on airplanes, trains and other “transportation conveyances.”
But soon afterwards, cases began to rise again nationwide as the Omicron BA.2 subvariant made its way across the country. In many areas, the rise was of sufficient concern that some cities re-imposed an indoor mask mandate, as did several colleges.
So, last week, the CDC wisely chose to extend for an additional two weeks the requirement of the mandate for travelers. In those two weeks, CDC experts will continue to monitor “the potential impact the rise of cases has on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and health care system capacity” to determine if indeed the new target of May 3 (just a few days before Mother’s Day) will be safe, or if, once again, the numbers dictate the need for another delay.
However, on Monday, a federal judge overturned the Biden administration mask mandate for airplanes and other public transport, saying the mandate exceeded the CDC’s statutory authority.
In the normal course of human affairs, the CDC’s extension shouldn’t have been a controversial decision. If, for example, a new blizzard is forecast just as we cleaned up from the last one, public opinion doesn’t rally around the notion of ignoring experts’ advice. We listen, accept the judgment knowing it has a chance to be wrong – and then get out the snow shovels.
But Covid-19 has proven to be unlike a weather event. Rather, it combines elements of vaudeville hucksterism and anti-science bigotry to create a professional wrestling steel cage, where opposing public health, public opinion and raw political views duke it out to the benefit of none.
To make the issue even more divisive, an exasperating new variable has been added: air travel. Even on a good day, people in airports, then on planes, are crowded and miserable. No one has the seat they want. The cruel passage through first class until you arrive at your cramped coach seat feels like a morality tale of uncertain meaning. Then there are delays and grim snacks and the worries about whatever one is leaving or heading to.
Heightening the emotion around masks, however, is a different situation: Air travel is a microcosm of community life. We are all in this together. Literally. Scrunched together in a cabin, it is evident that how we behave can and does affect those nearby. Quickly.
Nothing is private; everything is shared – even the filtered air. Out of deference to those around us, we stifle our whining to airline staff, minimize our scoots past neighbors for a stroll in the aisle, resist doing jumping jacks or – most especially – try our very best to avoid coughing, because all of this can affect others in our little inescapable airplane community.
This communal living, however brief, is unpleasant for everyone. Adding to it a mask mandate however appears to have tipped a segment of the “I am the boss of me; government be gone!” zealots of the mask and vaccine resistance into a fierce, and even violent, uncivil disobedience. The trend is bad enough to have caught the attention of the Federal Aviation Administration and, for some particularly unruly passengers, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As of Tuesday, the FAA had 1,150 reports of unruly passengers, from which 744 were related to mask-wearing.
Though the facts clearly demonstrate the prudence of delaying the end of the mask mandate, a choice echoed by the ongoing airline chaos in Europe, I continue to worry that the CDC ultimately will be cornered into doing the wrong thing – or forced to comply with the federal judge’s latest ruling on the matter before the Biden administration can appeal.
The country has slid into “move on from Covid-19” mode, embracing the magical thinking that, by ignoring the virus, it will go away, misconstruing our collective fatigue as an indication of finality. And the airplane tantrum reports, however despicable, are demoralizing somehow – clear-cut evidence of a tattered social fabric. The path to a quieter summer – at least in newspaper headlines – is to look the other way and hope nothing disastrous happens.
In this regard, it is unlikely that the wrong decision – rescinding the mask mandate too soon – will lead to any major health crisis. Yes, cases will increase, but with each new Covid-19 wave, believers in masks and vaccines have become shrewder as individuals and as a society at juggling safety and risk in our daily life.
Plus, we have a pretty good level of community immunity and lots of vaccine and/or disease-induced protection against severe disease and death. The decision by the CDC will not send us back to square one.
Should the CDC eventually move on from masks during travel even in the midst of uncertain containment of the virus, the assurance may be enough for many people to feel comfortable boarding an airplane without a mask. But if I fly anywhere in the next several months, first, I will do my own research by checking the CDC website showing state and county infection rates and, if I don’t like what the numbers show – no matter what towns my new cabin-mates hail from – I, happily, will once again don a mask.