Federal Mask Mandate Could End Next Week, But Will It?

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Federal Mask Mandate Could End Next Week, But Will It?

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UPDATE: The federal mask mandate has since been extended by another two weeks until Tuesday, May 3.

After a monthlong extension in March, the federal mask mandate on planes and in airports could end as soon as next Tuesday, April 19. But once again, the White House has been quiet about its plans in the week leading up to the latest deadline.

Masks have been mandatory on planes for two years since the start of the pandemic. Soon after taking office in January 2021, President Joe Biden took airline policies and turned them into a federal mandate, extending it several times throughout the last year as the pandemic dragged on.

But the latest extension was different: With its expiration just days away last month, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) pushed out masking requirements by just one month – a far shorter extension of the mask mandate than they'd enacted previously. And both agencies signaled they were working on a framework under which they would end the federal mask mandate based upon pandemic metrics … perhaps sooner rather than later.

The current federal mask mandate runs through next Monday, April 18. If it's not extended, that would allow passengers to go maskless on planes and in airports on April 19. So with just days remaining in the current mask mandate before it expires, the White House hasn't said what it will do. One of the nation's top pandemic advisers said Monday that an extension “is absolutely on the table.”
 

federal mask mandate extended 

“We’re going to see that (CDC) framework come out, I think, in the next few days,” Ashish Jha, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, told the Today Show Monday. “We’ll make a decision collectively based on that.”

So despite pressure from airlines, travel industry groups, and even Congress, it's not a sure thing that mask requirements will disappear next week.

After falling rapidly throughout the winter and early spring, COVID-19 cases are on the rise once again. Some public health officials are on edge again about the impact of new variants spreading faster than Omicron – and the TSA specifically pointed to “risk of new variants” in its framework for deciding the future of the federal mask mandate.

Whether it's briefly extended once again or allowed to end, the days of the federal mask mandate for air travel are clearly numbered. The national conversation on masking has shifted in recent months.

After two years of on-and-off mask requirements, many American now expect to go maskless nearly everywhere … except in airports and on airplanes, as the CDC has given nearly all Americans the go-ahead to ditch masks indoors, citing improving COVID-19 metrics like hospitalizations and strain on hospitals. Hawaii ended its own statewide mask mandate in late March, the last U.S. state to do so.
 

masks federal law
Photo courtesy of Delta

Some public health officials and flight attendants unions expressed misgivings about letting the mask mandate end in March, pointing to the fact that children under 5 are still ineligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine and many Americans remain vulnerable to the virus. But across much of the travel industry, the trend is clear: Many want the days of mandatory masking to end.

Late last month, the CEOs of America's largest airlines called on Biden to end the federal mask mandate and international travel restrictions, arguing it makes no sense to require masks in planes equipped with hospital-grade air filtration systems when passengers can gather maskless in bars and restaurants. They argued it placed an unfair burden on flight attendants to enforce mask usage onboard increasingly unruly planes.

“It is critical to recognize that the burden of enforcing … requirements has fallen on our employees for two years now,” the airlines wrote. “This is not a function they are trained to perform and subjects them to daily challenges by frustrated customers.”

Days after the latest extension, the U.S. Senate voted to rescind the federal mask mandate immediately. While the House has not acted on that proposal and Biden had promised to veto it if passed, it's another sign of the growing pressure to drop mask requirements on planes – not just at home, but abroad, too.

Across the pond, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic announced last month they would drop their own mask mandates onboard and Dutch carrier KLM has been pushing to do the same. But confusion reigns: So long the U.S. policy remains in place, mask mandates are still in effect on flights to and from the U.S.

 

Bottom Line

All eyes are on the White House and TSA this week as the expiration date of the federal mask mandate looms.

Will they extend the mask mandate once again? Or will Americans soon be allowed to go maskless in airports and on planes for the first time in two years?
 

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