Travelers continue to struggle with masking rules - and rule-breakers

Now that the federal government has extended its mask mandate for public transportation until next year, it's time to talk about the rule-breakers - and what to do about them.

Karin Kemp saw plenty of them on a recent flight from Chicago to Honolulu. The flight crew issued a stern warning that passengers had to wear face coverings at all times, including between sips of drinks and bites of food.

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"But looking around the cabin, I saw masks off, dangling, or below people's noses," says Kemp, a retired graphic designer from Matthews, N.C. "I didn't notice any flight attendants saying anything to anyone around me."

As the pandemic drags on, travel has become a flash point for mask rules. Confrontations about face masks are an almost daily event, particularly on planes. The opportunities for rule-breaking abound, and remedies are few.

Some passengers are tired of the mask requirements and are actively flouting them. Flight attendants seem equally tired of enforcing the rules and dealing with the fallout, which can sometimes turn violent. There have been 4,284 reports of unruly passenger incidents this year as of Sept. 14, 3,123 of which were mask-related, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Passengers sometimes employ workarounds that adhere to the letter of the law, if not the spirit. "I would say I don't wear a mask during the vast majority of a flight, perhaps 80 percent of it," says R. M. S. Thornton, an attorney from Monterey, Calif., who says he is vaccinated. "It's easy. You just have a drink in your hand and sip from it every so often. What's interesting is flight attendants probably know what people are doing when they use this method. But they don't care, because we are not technically breaking the rules."

The oldest mask cheat in the book is simply taking it off when no one is looking. There aren't enough flight attendants to patrol the cabin nonstop, so you end up with passengers taking off their masks partially or entirely on longer flights.

There's also the sleep loophole. That's what Nicole LeBlanc experienced on a flight from Paris to Dallas this summer. After the in-flight meal, a passenger fell asleep next to her - maskless. At first, LeBlanc, owner of Dallas-based travel agency Mon Voyage, didn't know what to do. Then she had an idea.

"I went to use the lavatory, and while I was up, I asked the flight attendant to walk by my seat and wake him up to put a mask on," she says. "She waited a couple of minutes, so I didn't have to look like the bad guy, casually strolled by, woke him up and offered him a fresh mask, which he donned as requested."

Sometimes, noncompliance results from what you might call "vaccine exuberance." Grace Poole, who publishes the blog Parenting Under Pressure in Salt Lake City, experienced the elation of being fully vaccinated just before she headed to the airport to visit her sister in Los Angeles.

"After months of making sure I had multiple masks in my car, at work, in my desk, in my purse and my diaper bag, I was so happy and relieved to throw them away," she says. "It was so freeing! I was convinced that the worst was behind us and that everything was on the up and up."

Poole bent the mask rules at the airport, absent-mindedly munching on nuts and popcorn while waiting for her flight. Then she saw three kids - all wearing masks - staring at her.

"I immediately felt guilty," she says. "I looked at the parents and realized, as a mom myself, how hard it must have been for them to convince their kids to wear masks at the airport. And here I was, contradicting everything they must have said to their kids by not wearing my mask."

Of course, masking issues aren't confined to public transportation. Doreen Welsh and her husband recently stayed at an all-inclusive resort in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. They didn't have to wear masks in the hotel, except at mealtime.

"We were required to wear them in the buffet section," says Welsh, a high school guidance counselor from Langhorne, Pa. "But the specialty restaurants had no requirements for masks."

Welsh reports that the other guests complied with the loose mask requirements, but wonders whether anyone would have gotten into trouble for violating what few rules existed. The hotel workers - all wearing face coverings - seemed grateful for their business and hesitant to demand mask compliance.

Airlines are less inclined to look the other way. Mark Hoffmann, who runs a tour operator called Sports Leisure Vacations in Sacramento, flew from Chicago to Sacramento in late August. He says flight attendants have cracked down on the shenanigans since the delta surge started.

"When you check in online, you now have to sign off on an extended covid rule list. Included is a promise you will put your mask on 'between bites and sips,' " he says. "Attendants on my flight were on top of mask enforcement. They let you know that if your mask wasn't on properly. If you fell asleep without wearing your mask - they would awaken you."

What's the best way for you to respond when someone doesn't follow the rules? With compassion, says Richard Martinello, an infectious-disease specialist at Yale Medicine.

"When I see a situation where public health rules are being broken, I first try to give the benefit of the doubt to the other person," Martinello says. "It's possible that they're unaware of the requirement or simply forgot. Typically, a kind, nonjudgmental redirection is appreciated, and the problem is solved."

Other times, the resolution is not so easy. But the same rules apply for mask cheaters as with other disruptive passengers. Wherever possible, ask a flight attendant or crew member to intervene. Otherwise, you could end up in a viral videos or, worse, in the hospital.

And that's no way to start a trip - or end one.

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Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United.

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