As other countries begin dropping mask requirements on planes and in airports, U.S. lawmakers and industry groups are pushing America to do the same, arguing the mandate is unnecessary given loosened Covid-19 restrictions nationwide.
Our take: 10 health policy topics—including Covid response—to watch in 2022
Following loosened Covid-19 restrictions in recent weeks, some international airports and airlines have begun lifting their mask mandates for airplane passengers.
For example, London's Heathrow Airport lifted its mask mandate last week, beginning March 16. In a statement, the airport said this change "reflects society's move towards learning to live with COVID longer term" and that it was only "possible because of the continued strong protection provided by vaccination [programs] around the world."
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic also both lifted their mask mandates, although they clarified that the change would only be applicable when flying to or from destinations without their own masking requirements.
Other countries where masks are no longer required in airports or for air travel include Denmark, Northern Ireland, Norway, Barbados, Mexico, St. Lucia, the Bahamas, and Jamaica.
Recently, the United States' mask mandate for airplanes and other public transit was extended through April 18 by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) following a CDC recommendation. This is the third time the mandate has been extended since it was first implemented in January 2021.
During the one-month mandate extension, CDC and TSA will be working to create "a revised policy framework for when, and under what circumstances, masks should be required in the public transportation corridor," Newsweek reports.
Many lawmakers and industry groups are pushing for an end to the federal mask mandate, arguing that it is unnecessary, especially as Covid-19 restrictions for other public areas are being lifted across the country.
"People can sit shoulder to shoulder in restaurants across the land now, without a mask, they can go to shopping centers, they can go to malls—everywhere but an airport, which looks a lot like a shopping mall to me," said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
Last week, the Senate voted 57-40 to overturn the federal mask mandate for public transit. Eight Democrats voted in favor of the measure, and one Republican, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) voted against it. According to Roll Call, the resolution's fate in the House is uncertain, but President Joe Biden has vowed to veto it if it passes there.
Separately, a group of Republican lawmakers, including 16 House members and one senator, last week filed a lawsuit against CDC to end the mask mandate for commercial airlines, arguing that the mandate was not approved by Congress and CDC did not have the authority to issue it.
Many groups in the travel industry have also voiced their support to ending the mask mandate for public transit. For example, Airlines for America, the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the U.S. Travel Association last month sent a letter to White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeffrey Zients asking the administration to either lift the mandate or announce a "plan and timeline to repeal the federal mask mandate within the subsequent 90 days."
In addition, the board of directors for advocacy group Airlines for America sent a letter to President Biden on Wednesday calling for the end of mask mandates and pre-departure testing requirements for international flights. The letter was signed by the heads of 10 major commercial and cargo airlines, Axios reports.
"We are encouraged by the current data and the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions from coast to coast, which indicate it is past time to eliminate COVID-era transportation policies," the letter read. "Much has changed since these measures were imposed and they no longer make sense in the current public health context."
Airline companies also previously stated that the advanced filtration systems on planes refresh the cabin air every two to three minutes, therefore reducing the risk of infection, the New York Times reports.
However, some health experts said keeping the mask mandate for public transit in place may be necessary to reduce viral transmission, particularly with the uncertainty of the pandemic going forward.
According to Graham Snyder, medical director of infection prevention at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, it's reasonable to be more cautious on planes, subways, and buses because "they are designed to efficiently put a lot of people in one place," which increases the risk of viral transmission.
In addition, Stephen Morse, an infectious diseases expert at Columbia University, said he believed the current extension of the mandate was appropriate, but it "may not be long enough" given the many surprises, such as new variants and surges, that have occurred throughout the pandemic.
Morse added that if the mandate is dropped, it will be difficult to reinstate if Covid-19 cases surge again.
Speaking on the Senate floor last week, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) expressed a similar sentiment, saying that getting rid of the mask mandate too soon could be disastrous to both the economy and public health, particularly if another, more dangerous Covid-19 variant emerged.
"Don't use a meat cleaver to bar the CDC from taking necessary public health action should there be a resurgence in COVID," Kaine said. (Murphy, New York Times, 3/23; Slisco, Newsweek, 3/14; Wehrman, Roll Call, 3/15; Koenig/Miller, Associated Press, 3/10; Saric, Axios, 3/24)
The Biden administration's first year in office was unsurprisingly dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic. While Democrats in Congress were able to pass part one of President Biden’s infrastructure package, other health care priorities were largely sidelined. As we look to 2022, there are 10 key health care topics that are ripe for congressional or regulatory action. If and how Congress and the Biden administration move on those actions will have strategic implications for industry executives across the health care ecosystem.
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