by Dawn Gilbertson from USA Today
With several states lifting mask mandates and COVID-19 vaccination rates on the rise, travelers are starting to ask when they will be able to fly without wearing a mask.
It shouldn't be anytime soon, flight attendants say.
The federal mask mandate on planes and in airports, signed by President Joe Biden in January and due to expire May 11, should be extended through September, the president of the largest flight attendants union said during a U.S. Senate subcommittee meeting Wednesday.
"We are still in the middle of the crisis,'' Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said during a meeting of the Aviation Safety, Operations and Innovation subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee. "I do think it's important that we recognize that and stay the course here with the mask policies, with all of our diligence (and) with the efforts to get the vaccine out to everyone.''
The union, which represents flight attendants at airlines including United, Alaska, Spirit and Frontier, recently began doling out stickers to vaccinated flight attendants. The message: "Get vaxxed, wear a mask and come fly with us.''
U.S. airlines have required passengers to wear masks for nearly a year and repeatedly asked for a federal mask mandate to help them enforce it on flights. The efforts were unsuccessful until Biden took office.
The airline industry supports an extension, too, Nicholas Calio, CEO of the trade group Airlines for America said during the hearing.
They are likely to find support from Biden given his criticism of governors who have lifted mask mandates. In early March, he called such moves a big mistake.
"The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that, in the meantime, everything's fine, take off your mask, forget it," Biden said. "It still matters.''
Republican Sen. Roger Wicker represents Mississippi, one of the state's that rolled back its mandate. He said the federal mask mandate will likely be extended but can't be extended forever.
"Some day the mask requirement needs to end,'' he said during the hearing.
He asked Dr. Leonard Marcus, director of the Aviation Public Health Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, what metrics will be used to make the decision.
"Or are we just going to know it when we see it and just feel our way along until somebody finally says this is totally pointless to do this any further,'' Wicker said.
Marcus, who along with other Harvard public health researchers has published two airline-sponsored reports on travel safety during COVID-19, said coronavirus variants make it difficult to determine when masks will no longer be needed.
So, too, does the lack of sufficient data on whether people who have been vaccinated can become infected or transmit the virus.
"So right now our recommendation from the science community is to continue wearing a mask,'' he said.
Marcus said there is growing evidence that vaccinated people gathering outside have a low risk of transmission so taking masks off is becoming an option there.
Not so indoors, including airplanes and airports, he said.
"I think we probably both agree we'd like to take our masks off, but let's wait to do it until this crisis is in the rearview mirror,'' Marcus told Wicker.
Wicker's response: "Well, we’re going to wait to do it until the government changes the requirement. It does seem though, sometime in the future; this thing needs to end.''