Time to enforce the travel mask rules

Fear of flying has taken on a whole new meaning in the travel mask rules era

travel mask rules

Even George Washington wears a COVID-19 mask ©MOjermark

Now, international travel is subject to all kinds of bans and regulations. Domestic US travel, for now, remains largely unregulated. We still effectively have a patchwork of rules. A handful of states have imposed quarantines for travelers from COVID-19 hotspots. Some are still questioning the benefits of travel mask rules.

Looking at domestic airline websites, it’s pretty clear they’re taking safety seriously. They tout airline cleaning protocols. And current travel mask rules require masks onboard flights. There are exemptions only while eating and drinking and for small or “very young” children and those with disabilities.

DOT/DHS/HHS OMB/OIRA aviation guidance document says face masks work to stop the spread of COVID-19

This “Runway to Recovery” states that to stop COVID-19 airlines must “require appropriate face coverings.” It doesn’t get more direct than that. This is a good thing.

The UC San Francisco study also showed that even on planes and when working closely with others, masks provide protection. A recent Travelers United column noted the benefit of wearing a mask while flying.

Two compelling case reports also suggest that masks can prevent transmission in high-risk scenarios, said Chin-Hong and Rutherford. In one case, a man flew from China to Toronto and subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. He had a dry cough and wore a mask on the flight, and all 25 people closest to him on the flight tested negative for COVID-19. A recent good news story out of Missouri found that at a hair salon where two stylists tested positive, but which also required masks, not one of the 139 clients contracted the virus.

The airlines are still in denial about the national travel mask rules trumpeted in Runway to Recovery. Denial keeps the patchwork system in place.

Because the airlines have not embraced the already published guidance, their best efforts can still run into local issues.  Witness the current situation in Georgia, where Governor Brian Kemp says his executive order supersedes all local mask requirements. This includes Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport, the busiest in the US, and a major Delta Airlines hub.

Federal law supersedes state law, so at TSA checkpoints masks will still be required, and Delta’s own policy requires face coverings at check-in, in gate areas, jet bridges and onboard. The airline rules are subject to federal preemption, according to the US Supreme Court. Sorry, Governor Kemp.

But Governor Kemp’s rule means that the rest of the airport is effectively on the honor system. As someone who flew two weeks ago, I can attest that everyone I saw was masked and my sense is that most people understand that it’s a safety issue, for themselves and other people.

Will a face-mask honor system work? Why should it? We have a national rule

We’ve all seen the protests and the online videos showing Americans who don’t agree, and who consider not wearing a mask to be some sort of personal freedom statement. While I’m all for free speech, the thought of walking through an airport past people who won’t wear a mask is rather terrifying. (I have to wonder what other safety protocols do they think are unnecessary?)

Fortunately, even with future flying, since I live in California and most of my travel is to the East Coast. I have no need to connect via Atlanta. Even if I had to travel to the southern US there are alternatives. But as a former Orlando, Florida, resident in high school, I remember the old joke, “Even if you’re going to Hell you have to change in Atlanta.” Moreover, I assume that many Delta flight attendants, pilots, and other employees have to transit Hartsfield at some point, which increases risks for everyone connected with the airlines.

We already have a published document. Let’s enforce it 

There are lots of “shoulds” in this document, but few “requires.” However, Runway to Recovery clearly states that airlines should “Require appropriate face coverings” in the chart on page 5. Furthermore, the footnote on page 6 refers to the Executive Order 13891 of October 9, 2019. This is the US rule published by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

We find that such exigencies and good cause exist for this guidance document due to the health risks presented by COVID-19 and need to promote critical health mitigation measures quickly and consistently to support containment of the virus and restore the U.S. aviation transportation system.

This document adopts relevant Federal guidelines and reflects those already supported in the aviation sector. For these reasons, the agencies, in consultation with OMB, have found that good cause exists to waive public notice and comment because such procedures are unnecessary and contrary to the public interest.

The aviation industry needs to get behind this collection of common sense published by the White House in Runway to Recovery. The President should publicly embrace what his office has published. In an era where something as simple as mask wearing has become political, let’s enforce these guidelines. The White House, the executive departments, and the airlines have spoken. Everyone on planes and in airports must “wear appropriate face coverings.”