Mask rule for planes and trains may soon be abolished

DALLAS (AP) – The federal requirement to wear face masks on airplanes and public transportation is set to expire next week, and airline executives and Republican lawmakers are urging the Biden administration to end the mandate.

The fate of the rule – and consideration of an alternative “framework” of steps to limit the spread of COVID-19 – were under discussion on Monday within the US Centers for Disease Control. Officials called it close.

“It’s a decision that CDC Director Dr. (Rochelle) Valensky is going to make,” White House coronavirus-policy adviser Dr. Ashish Jha said on Monday. “I know CDC is working on developing a scientific framework to respond to this. I think we’ll see that framework unfold over the next few days.”

Jha said re-increasing the mask mandate is “on the table.”

The administration granted a one-month relief to the rule in March so that public-health officials would have time to develop alternative ways to limit the transmission of COVID-19 during travel.

More on the COVID-19 Pandemic

The mask mandate of government restrictions to control the pandemic is the most visible, and possibly the most controversial. The rise in abusive and sometimes violent incidents on airplanes has been attributed mainly to controversies over mask-wearing.

Critics have captured the fact that states have rolled back rules requiring masks in restaurants, stores and other indoor settings, and yet since the Omicron version peaked in mid-January, COVID-19 There has been a sharp decline in cases.

“The American people have seen through the false argument that COVID-19 only exists on airplanes and public transportation,” Republicans on the House and Senate transportation committees said Friday in a letter to the administration.

However, a recent increase in cases may provide reason for the CDC to keep the mask rule a little longer.

After a two-month decline, the seven-day rolling US average of newly reported COVID-19 cases reported in recent days has risen slightly to relatively low levels.

Several key officials have contracted the virus, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., 82, who tested positive for the virus last week — without a mask — at a White House event with President Joe Biden. Also last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo revealed they had tested positive after a gathering that was quickly dubbed a super-spreader incident.

Airlines began requiring masks in 2020, months before a government mandate was issued, days after President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Airlines faced financial ruin due to the pandemic, and masks and other measures such as blocking middle seats were meant to reassure frightened passengers that flying was safe from the virus.

In December, the CEO of Southwest Airlines was forced to retract a comment that masks didn’t do much to improve health protection in the cabin because planes have stronger air filters.

Passengers are back – the number of Americans boarding planes exceeded 2 million in a single day in March – and airlines think they can sell a lot of seats without a mask rule.

“My flight attendants are begging us to stop this,” said Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle. “Every day it’s causing all these incidents on board, and it’s frustrating and it’s dangerous. You’re asking a 24-year-old flight attendant to explain it to someone who’s crazy” about the rule.

Unions representing flight attendants once supported the mask rule but are now neutral. The office bearers of the union say that their members are divided.

Executives at 10 airlines, including American, Delta, United and Southwest, wrote to Biden last month, urging the White House to drop the mask rule and a requirement that international travelers check COVID-19 before flying to the US. Tested negative for 19 “A lot has changed since these. The measures were implemented and they no longer make sense in the current public health context,” the officials said.

Airlines for America, a trade group representing those big airlines, and three other industry organizations made similar appeals to Dr Jha on Friday. He pointed to recent CDC guidance that found most Americans no longer need to wear masks indoors because hospitalization rates are relatively low in their communities.

Savanti Sith, an airline analyst at Raymond James & Associates, said there are some people who would feel uncomfortable flying with fellow passengers who are not wearing masks, but there may be some who have avoided flying because They are not comfortable wearing it. a long flight.

“I expect most passengers and flight attendants to welcome the change (if the rule is removed), given that it is in line with most other areas of everyday life,” Sith said. She said any impact on travel demand would be small, and eliminating the need for testing on inbound international passengers would give airlines a huge boost.

Chris Lopinto, co-founder of travel site ExpertFlyer.com, said that due to the recent spurt in COVID-19 cases, it may be prudent to retain the mask until cases subside again.

“I don’t think there will be any material impact on demand in any way, given that airlines can barely meet the demand that already exists,” he said.

Most congressional Democrats continue to support the mask mandate. Edward Markey, D-Mass., urged the CDC and the Transportation Security Administration to uphold the rules, saying the virus and variants remain a threat to seniors and those with weakened immune systems or disabilities.

However, the political equation may change. Last month, eight Democrats broke with the White House and joined Senate Republicans in a symbolic vote against the masked mandate. Four of those Democrats face a difficult re-election race in November, and the party is unlikely to take control of the Senate if either of them loses.

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Associated Press White House reporter Zeke Miller contributed to this report.

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