After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggested only a one-month extension to the present mandate, the federal face mask rule, which includes public transit and transportation hubs, might be phased out on April 18.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which is in charge of enforcing the mandate, confirmed the news on Thursday, saying it will use the time to work on a revamped framework that may see the mandate canceled or at the very least drastically eased.
“CDC will work with government agencies to help inform a revised policy framework for when, and under what circumstances, masks should be required in the public transportation corridor,” the federal agency said in a statement.
“This revised framework will be based on the COVID-19 community levels, risk of new variants, national data, and the latest science. We will communicate any updates publicly if and/or when they change.”
If the mask mandate is based on the CDC’s community levels framework, as is now strongly suggested, then there is a genuine possibility that mandatory mask-wearing for the vast majority of domestic flights will be abandoned.
However, such an approach has the potential to cause significant consternation. The ‘Community Levels’ guidelines establish three levels of recommendations that take into account factors such as hospitalizations and hospital capacity in addition to the number of cases and test positivity.
People who live in high-risk regions are still recommended to wear a mask indoors and while in public. According to the most recent CDC statistics, 195 counties in the United States are currently classified as high-risk, necessitating the use of indoor masking.
As a result, planes serving certain counties may be required to use mandatory masking. Furthermore, these restrictions may change as the CDC’s list of High-Risk counties is updated.
Thankfully, there are no significant airports on the current list of High-Risk locales, making the removal of masking requirements for domestic flights easier. However, depending on the CDC’s destination-specific travel guidelines, similar rules may be drawn up for overseas destinations.
Taking those recommendations into account, the majority of the world is now classified as Level 4. Citizens of the United States are urged not to travel to these locations at all, and if they do, the CDC suggests wearing a face mask in all public venues.
This creates a difficult position for individual airlines.
So, even if the CDC does lift the mask rule (in some form or another), don’t expect the airlines to make a significant or quick alteration in their stance.
Carriers are more likely to follow international recommendations from organizations such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as regional entities such as Europe’s air safety agency (EASA).
The international consensus is clear: masks should be required for the majority of passengers on all flights, regardless of the amount of risk in the destination country.
Airlines, on the other hand, could take advantage of this chance to relax their own masking restrictions dramatically. The minimum age for wearing a mask might be raised from two to at least six if not nine years old, and medically exempt passengers could self-certify their exemption.
The latter alternative would be a de facto repeal of the mask mandate, allowing airlines to court passengers who believe that wearing a mask makes them feel safer while removing the stress that has often resulted from the current stringent standards.
At the same time, airlines might urge flight attendants and other frontline employees to remain hands-off, while encouraging susceptible customers to wear a N95 or KN95 mask, which is better prepared to protect the wearer when individuals around them are unmasked.
The CDC and airlines have little over a month to come up with a solution to these problems. Will they be successful?