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WASHINGTON — You have to wear a mask indoors in Philadelphia, but on an airplane that takes off from Philadelphia International Airport, you are welcome to go mask-free. In San Francisco, you have to wear a mask on BART trains, but not Muni buses. Uber dropped its masking requirement for riders, but New York City has its own superseding mandate for taxis and ride-share vehicles. You don’t have to wear a mask if you’re watching the Brooklyn Nets play at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, but your 4-year-old has to wear a mask inside her Park Slope nursery three blocks away.
The inconsistent and shifting rules have further fatigued an already exhausted nation.
Even with the pandemic seemingly on the wane, the United States appears to have reached peak mask confusion, after months of competing lawsuits and guidances, protests and counterprotests, warnings, recriminations, condemnations and pleas. The potential final blow came on Monday, when a Republican federal judge in Florida, Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, struck down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance requiring masks on public transportation, as well as airplanes and trains.
Aside from the ever-shifting government mask requirements, many businesses have imposed their own policies. The we-are-all-in-this-together ethos of 2020 has devolved into an ideological patchwork that can vary from one business to another on the same city block.
“Sorting out whether to wear a mask on an airplane (or anywhere else) is an unbelievably complex decision,” Dr. Robert Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told Yahoo News in an email. That decision “requires one to weigh individual risks (of contracting covid, of actually getting sick from it), vaccine status, immune status, whether you’ve already had covid, risks of Long Covid, whether you live with vulnerable people, the amount of Covid in the region (and the fact that an airplane is a mixture of people from a variety of regions) and the airflow on the plane.”
“It would be shocking,” he wrote, “if this weren’t massively confusing!”
The chaos is likely to only worsen, with the federal government set to appeal the Florida decision. If that appeal is successful, passengers could suddenly be asked to don their face coverings once again.
Asked if people should continue to wear masks on transit despite the Florida decision, President Biden had little to say. “That’s up to them,” he told a reporter during a visit to New Hampshire. His administration later had to clarify the remark.
The travel rule had been the last vestige of anything resembling a national mask policy, given how quickly state and local mask rules had fallen away in the first three months of 2022. Now, outside of a few local governments — Philadelphia’s being the largest — significant mask mandates are becoming vanishingly rare, even as some public health officials say it is far too soon to unmask, regardless of what the courts say or the airlines want.
“Economic and political interests have repeatedly prevailed over scientific evidence in the CDC’s decision making,” says Dartmouth public health policy expert Anne Sosin, who believes that the agency’s easing of masking guidelines in late February was an effective signal that face coverings were falling out of favor.
Politicians and public health officials had been arguing about masks since early 2020. Since the Biden administration began imposing mandates in 2021, judges like Mizelle have also joined the fray, thus only adding more tension to an already tense debate. At the middle of it all has been the White House, whose promises to “listen to the science” have been frustrated at regular intervals.
Showing little enthusiasm for resuming the mask wars, a weary White House nevertheless found it back into the breach this week. As the president traveled to New Hampshire on Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki challenged the notion that Tuesday’s ruling had caught the administration off guard, leaving it without a coherent message on masking yet again.
“I would dispute the notion that people are confused,” Psaki said. “We are here to alleviate their confusion, right?” She noted that everyone aboard Air Force One at the time was masked.
Having already lost several court decisions regarding vaccine mandates, the Justice Department said it would wait for the CDC to decide whether Mizelle’s ruling was worth appealing. On Thursday, the CDC said that, yes, an appeal was necessary, in order to “protect CDC’s public health authority” for future emergencies.
Restoring the mandate will be difficult, in part because the conservative 11th Circuit will hear the argument, but also because the CDC itself has downplayed masking since late February. Since the CDC issued its revised guidelines, which rely more on hospitalizations than on infection rates, much of the country has seen its risk levels drop, thanks to what amounted to a formula tweak.
Polls show Americans divided over masking but somewhat narrowly favoring the practice. Yet nobody could possibly be in favor of the competing and often contradictory messages that have emanated from federal, state and local leaders.
The CDC could have allowed the travel mandate to expire, but with the BA.2 variant on the rise, the agency opted for a two-week extension. Monday’s decision thus came as a glancing blow, one that an expired order would have obviated, since there would be no mask order to enjoin.
Others say the focus on masks has been misguided, given that better methods of both individual and collective protection are available. “I feel badly for people that we have messaged masks so terribly in the U.S., because it has created a lot of confusion, fear and distrust,” Washington, D.C., physician Lucy McBride told Yahoo News. “We have evangelized mask wearing and mandates at the expense of focusing on vaccination, ventilation and vigilance in protecting our highest-risk patients and populations.”
Almost from the start, masking has been endowed with a high degree of symbolism. For pro-Trump elements of the right, mask requirements have long been a symbol of tyranny and misguided fealty to “the science.” For many progressives, masks have become a symbol of communitarian values and regard for public safety.
The judge’s decision striking down the travel mandate, accordingly, proved instantaneously divisive, reinvigorating a mask debate that had been relegated to the background, even as the BA.2 subvariant continued to gain traction in the Northeast and elsewhere.
Mizelle’s relative youth (she is 35) and conservative politics (she was appointed during the Trump administration) gave further ammunition to her critics. Travel was about to become a “MAGA nightmare,” warned Georgetown professor Lawrence Gostin.
Mizelle’s decision hinged on the word “sanitation,” which she argued the CDC had interpreted so broadly as to deem passengers worthy or not of travel depending on whether they were willing to mask. Even so, Mizelle agreed that masking would “decrease the serious illness and death that COVID-19 occasions,” an acknowledgment that seemed to only further infuriate critics of her ruling.
People with prior conditions like cancer or autoimmune disease felt especially stung by the shift. “It's incredibly isolating to be immunocompromised/disabled right now,” Wisconsin-based voting rights attorney David Kronig wrote on Twitter. “We see ppl celebrating the end of public health policies that make more of the world accessible to us, and it hurts. Each time mask or vax requirements are lifted, our worlds constrict, and few seem to care.”
The capacity for empathy erodes over time, and some were simply glad to show their faces again. “This is the most important announcement I’ve ever made,” an Alaska Airlines pilot told passengers midflight, shortly after the judge’s ruling. “The federal mask mandate is over. Take off your mask if you choose!” People cheered, clapped and, yes, took off their masks.
Airplanes are safe, experts said, because of the frequency with which cabin air is filtered, but the filters don’t begin to function until takeoff. Ventilation matters, but so does vaccination. Then there are buses, trains and ride shares, where masks have been the norm.
“For two years, it was all about people being told what they had to do,” former Baltimore Public Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen told Yahoo News. “But just because the government is not requiring you to mask doesn't mean that you shouldn't mask. The focus has shifted from top-down government mandates to individual decision making.”
Wen is an advocate of “one-way masking,” in which people can make the decision to protect themselves with an effective mask, even if fellow passengers decline to do so.
“Unsatisfying and fraught as ‘one-way masking’ could be, it is likely to become the reality for Americans seeking an additional layer of protection. If you are going to wear a mask, make sure to wear a well-fitting, high-quality mask — ideally an N95 or equivalent (KN95, KF94),” she told Yahoo News in an email.
It’s an imperfect solution, but given the messy state of masking in the United States, it may just have to do.