Told You So—It Was Way Too Soon to Lift COVID Mask Mandates


The CDC, in a pro-life move, this week extended the mask mandates for public transportation until May 3 citing the spread of BA.2—a subvariant of the omicron COVID-19 variant—which now makes up more than 85 percent of new U.S. coronavirus cases.

This is the right call. If we truly want to save lives and finally return to “normal,” then history, science, and common sense would suggest we demand airlines continue requiring mask mandates, for at least the near future, or until we don’t have a highly contagious subvariant spreading around the world.

Unfortunately, not everyone shares my sentiment.

MSNBC host Joe Scarborough reacted to the news by tweeting, “Enough. Stop. Just stop. Two vaccines, a booster, and two years of increased immunity mean it’s time to move forward. Make this voluntary now. And for God’s sake, lift the damn mandates in airports.”

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Many share his frustrations. In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted last month, 51 percent said the mask mandates should expire on April 18, while 49 percent want it to stay in place. However, 59 percent believe “people should continue to wear masks in some public places” to curb transmissions and another surge. And a sizable majority—80 percent—said they wore masks in indoor public places at least sometimes over the past month.

I wonder how those numbers would change considering the US is now reporting more than 31,000 new cases a day on average, 8 percent more than at the beginning of the month. New York City is now averaging 1,800 cases a day, three times higher than in early March. There’s also been a 60 percent increase over the past 10 days in Philadelphia, which has wisely responded by becoming the first major city to reinstate indoor mask mandates earlier this week. Pennsylvania swing voters, in an Axios Engagious/Schlesinger focus group, welcomed the decision. And several colleges are requiring masking again.

All of this is a good reminder that even though some, like Scarborough, want us to “just stop” and “move forward,” COVID doesn’t care about our feelings. It plays by its own rules.

It’s also important to remember that most states prematurely eased their masking requirements in early March, apparently forgetting last summer’s wave of death thanks to the Delta variant, and the rise in hospitalizations and sickness caused by the subsequent Omicron variant in the fall.

Who could’ve predicted a spike in cases coinciding with the removal of mask requirements? Pretty much anyone who has been lucky to survive this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic from hell. We’re living in our version of an Old Testament story in which otherwise rational and intelligent people repeatedly ignore the clear signs. It’s fine to be skeptical about the first few plagues, because, after all, can you really trust an elderly man with a staff? However, if you’re still heedless after seeing frogs drop from the sky, then perhaps the problem is your own stubbornness and selfishness.

Around the world, the new variant is surging in the U.K. and causing havoc in China. Meanwhile in the U.S.—at least 72 people, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Attorney General Merrick Garland—tested positive for COVID after attending the Gridiron Dinner in Washington, D.C. earlier in April. During this month of Ramadan, many Muslims are hosting large, indoor iftar parties, where people are in close proximity as they eat food and break their fast—apparently oblivious to the fact there’s still an ongoing pandemic. Predictably, a couple of my friends who attended such events have since contracted the virus.

I take no pleasure in sharing these anecdotes, nor am I interested in “shaming” those who are trying their best to simply enjoy their lives. I’m also not advocating for complete lockdowns like what’s happening in Shanghai, encasing our families in bubble wrap, or refusing to live our lives out of fear.

But it also bears mentioning that no one in America is being asked to ration their food, send their children to war, or storm the beaches of Normandy. We aren’t trapped in our homes, screaming from the rooftops, and prohibited from acquiring food and basic supplies by an authoritarian dictatorship. Wearing a mask in a packed airplane or bus is quite literally the least we can do to help limit the spread of a virus, which seems to always reappear in unnecessary and terrible remakes when we collectively let our guard down.

That being said, I also understand the immense frustration of life under the pandemic. For the first time in three years, my family went on a trip to Florida to visit our in-laws. We’ve been in a strict lockdown due to my immuno-suppressed daughter—who is a Stage 4 cancer survivor and has yet to build any antibodies.

When Scarborough and others talk about vaccinations and boosters, they forget that children under 5 don’t yet have access to vaccines—or the fact that millions, including the elderly and the immuno-suppressed, remain acutely vulnerable to the virus.

Also relevant, thanks in part to popular anti-vax disinformation podcasters, the U.S. still has a large unvaccinated population. In less distressing but still unfortunate news, a majority of the vaccinated still haven’t received their booster shots.

Mask and Vaccine Mandates Are Gone, but COVID Is Still Here

I neither expect nor demand the majority to be hijacked by anti-vaxxers or my family’s particular situation. We have to constantly weigh the risks of doing the most basic of activities, such as attending Ramadan iftars or sending my two kids to school in person. Not everyone has to live that way. It’s our burden, and we’re willing to bear it.

However, wearing a mask on a plane and practicing some safe social distancing in no way limited our ability to travel safely, visit Legoland, meet our in-laws, and enjoy a much-needed relaxing vacation. My kids—ages 7, 5, and 2—had no problem wearing their masks and understood it was a necessary, temporary annoyance for the sake of their personal safety and the public good. In fact, it seems that adults who refuse to comply with mask requirements are the biggest public nuisance. In 2021, there were more than 4,000 mask-related incidents on airplanes as passengers assaulted and accosted flight attendants who simply asked them to comply with the rules and cover their faces.

Regardless of your personal opinion on masks, it remains in the best interest of public health that we continue to cover responsibly in airplanes.

“Masks will definitely decrease your risk of transmission,” Dr. Aisha Khatib, the chair of a group focused on responsible travel for the International Society of Travel Medicine, told The New York Times. She added that there’s “no zero-risk situation on an airplane,” and even though the air is recycled, the risk goes up during surge situations, and exiting and entering the plane when the ventilation system is off. Also, unlike other situations, such as restaurants or buildings, you can’t get off an airplane once it’s in the air. You’re stuck in a closed space, packed with people, some of whom might be infected. It’s like being in an international human petri dish. I, for one, want me and my family to leave the dish healthy.

Instead of repeating our numerous mistakes, it would benefit all of us if enough Americans simply follow basic safety precautions to reduce the spread of the virus. For now, this means continuing to wear your mask on an airplane. Public safety requires minor “nuisances” in which the cost—your personal annoyance and discomfort—is vastly outweighed by the immense benefit, which in this case could save lives.

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