The federal requirement to wear face masks on airplanes and public transportation is scheduled to expire on April 18, and airline executives and Republican lawmakers are urging the Biden administration to let the mandate die. But a Biden official said extending the mandate is still a possibility.
The fate of the rule — and consideration of an alternate "framework" of moves to limit the spread of COVID-19 — was under discussion Monday within the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Officials described it as a close call.
"This is a decision that the CDC Director Dr. (Rochelle) Walensky is going to make," White House coronavirus-policy adviser Dr. Ashish Jha said Monday. "I know the CDC is working on developing a scientific framework for how to answer that. We are going to see that framework come out I think in the next few days."
Mask rule extension "on the table"
Jha said that extending mask mandate again is "on the table."
The administration gave the rule a one-month reprieve in March to give public-health officials time to develop alternative methods of limiting the transmission of COVID-19 during travel.
The mask mandate is the most visible vestige of government restrictions to control the pandemic, and possibly the most controversial. A surge of abusive and sometimes violent incidents on airplanes has been attributed mostly to disputes over mask-wearing.
Airlines have reported 1,081 unruly passenger incidents so far in 2022, according to the FAA. About 700 of those incidents involved face masks, the agency said.
Critics have seized on the fact that states have rolled back rules requiring masks in restaurants, stores and other indoor settings, and yet COVID-19 cases have fallen sharply since the Omicron variant peaked in mid-January.
"The American people have seen through the false logic 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.
And the CEOs of nearly a dozen airlines including American, Delta, JetBlue and United sent a letter to the White House urging the Biden administration to jettison COVID-era safety precautions for flights, including the mask rule plus a requirement that international travelers test negative for COVID-19 before flying to the U.S.
"It makes no sense that people are still required to wear masks on airplanes, yet are allowed to congregate in crowded restaurants, schools and at sporting events without masks, despite none of these venues having the protective air-filtration system that aircraft do," the executives wrote.
Recent COVID-19 surge
However, a recent uptick in cases could provide reason for the CDC to keep the mask rule a bit longer.
After a steep, two-month decline, the seven-day rolling U.S. average of new reported COVID-19 cases has turned slightly higher in recent days, although from relatively low levels.
Several prominent officials have recently contracted the virus, including the 82-year-old House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who tested positive for the virus last week after appearing — without a mask — at a White House event with President Joe Biden. Also last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo disclosed that they had tested positive after a gathering that was quickly dubbed a super-spreader event.
Rising case numbers have also prompted the city of Philadelphia, and a handful of colleges and universities to reinstate mask mandates for the foreseeable future.
Airlines began requiring masks in 2020, months before the government mandate was issued following President Joe Biden's inauguration. At the time, Airlines faced financial ruin because of the pandemic, and the masks and other measures such as blocking middle seats were meant to reassure frightened passengers that flying was safe.
In December, the CEO of Southwest Airlines was forced to walk back a comment that masks didn't do much to improve health safety in the cabin because planes have strong air filters.
Travelers have returned — the number of Americans getting on planes surged past 2 million a day in March — and airlines think they can sell plenty of seats without the mask rule.
"My flight attendants are begging us to stop this," Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle said. "Every day it's causing all of 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 is mad" about the rule.
Unions that represent flight attendants once supported the mask rule but are now neutral. Union officials say their members are divided.
Airlines for America, a trade group representing those big airlines, and three other industry organizations made a similar appeal to Dr. Jha on Friday. They pointed to recent CDC guidance which found that the most Americans no longer need to wear masks indoors because hospitalization rates in their communities are relatively low.
Could dropping the mandate backfire?
Public health and business interests are more aligned than some business leaders make them out to be, according to experts.
And dropping mask rules could backfire in more ways than one if immnunocompromised and elderly passengers deem flying without masks too risky an activity.
Additionally, if more crew members are exposed to the virus, get sick and are unable to show up to work, airlines could face significant schedule disruptions.
For example, Swiss carrier EasyJet had to cancel hundreds of flights after it dropped its mask mandate, citing higher-than-usual levels of staff sickness due to COVID-19.
Savanthi Syth, an airline analyst for Raymond James & Associates, said there are some people who will feel uncomfortable flying with fellow passengers who aren't wearing masks, but there could be others who have avoided flying because they're not comfortable wearing one for a long flight.
"I expect the vast majority of passengers and flight attendants will welcome the change (if the rule is dropped), given that it is consistent with most other areas of everyday life," Syth said. She said any impact on travel demand will be small, and that airlines would get a much bigger boost from elimination of the testing requirement on inbound international travelers.
Chris Lopinto, co-founder of travel site ExpertFlyer.com, said that because of the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases, it might be wise to keep the mask mandate until cases subside again.
"I don't think there would be a material effect on demand either way, considering airlines can barely keep up with the demand they already have," he said.
Most congressional Democrats continue to support the mask mandate. A leading liberal, Sen. Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, urged the CDC and the Transportation Security Administration to keep the rule in place, saying that the virus and variants remain a threat to seniors and people with weakened immune systems or disabilities.
The political calculus could be shifting, however. Last month, eight Democrats broke with the White House and joined Senate Republicans in a symbolic vote against the mask mandate. Four of those Democrats face difficult re-election races in November, and the party is unlikely to keep control of the Senate if any of them lose.
This article originally appeared on CBS News