The plane had only just reached cruising altitude Monday when the pilot made the announcement: The COVID mask mandate on public transportation was over, effective immediately. Many passengers on the Alaska Airlines flight ripped off their face coverings, cheering the change.
It was the first time Rachael Mahoney and her 17-year-old son, Christian, had flown since before the pandemic. Christian is immunocompromised, with severe asthma and lung scarring, but they had decided to make the trip from San Francisco to Honolulu to tour colleges. It was a calculated risk, but one they felt OK with assuming masks would be required.
“There was this gentleman by the window, and he immediately made an exclamation [like] ‘yay!’ and removed his mask. My son and I kept ours on,” Mahoney told BuzzFeed News. “Christian turned to me and said, ‘Oh, great.’”
The mother and son, both of whom are up to date on COVID vaccinations, were just two of the many travelers who learned midflight that face masks would no longer be required on several major airlines, including Delta, American, JetBlue, and United. Numerous pilots announced the news to passengers, allowing them to unmask right away. Videos and photos of the moment have circulated widely online.
For many like Mahoney and her son, though, this announcement was anything but exciting — it left them frightened for their safety. While some are seeing the end of the mask mandate as a return of “freedom,” Mahoney felt her freedom to protect herself and her son was taken away when the change was made without warning.
“I purchased the ticket, I boarded the plane, all while believing that masks would be required,” Mahoney said. “That decision, the way that it was made, removed that informed consent from me in a way that I had no control over to protect my son — I felt like I was misled.”
Just last week, the CDC extended its mask order for public transportation until at least May 3, citing an increase in US coronavirus infections spurred by the Omicron BA.2 variant.
The extension was supposed to allow ample time for the CDC to assess the impact the rise in cases might have on COVID hospitalizations and death. But a federal judge’s order that abruptly struck down the mandate instead wiped one of the last remaining protections for those who rely on public transportation to get to work, visit family, take kids to school, or access medical care.
The White House's new COVID-19 response coordinator called the decision "deeply disappointing" in a tweet Tuesday, noting that CDC scientists had asked for 15 days to make a more "data-driven durable decision."
Most concerning, however, are the risks faced by people with weakened immune systems and children under 5 who are still ineligible for coronavirus vaccination.
Immunocompromised people are more likely to get seriously sick and die from COVID compared with healthy individuals. Meanwhile, they’re less likely to mount adequate immune responses from vaccines; some don’t respond at all. (The FDA and CDC recently recommended a second booster shot for the group.)
Caregivers of children under 5 are in a similar predicament. It has been about two months since the FDA postponed its meeting to review Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine data for kids between 6 months and 4 years old, which left parents and caregivers feeling incredibly hopeless and frustrated. Pfizer officials said data on a third dose would be available by “early April,” but the company has yet to release it.
Last month, Moderna released its data on vaccines for children under 6 and said it expects to ask the FDA for authorization “in the coming weeks.” As of Tuesday, no request had been filed.
Brooke Tansley was flying from Connecticut to Los Angeles with her two children, a 4-year-old and an 8-month-old, when the pilot announced masks could be removed. It worried her immensely — neither of her children are old enough to be vaccinated, and the younger one is too young to wear a mask. (Kids under 2 should not wear masks due to safety concerns.)
Had she known the mask mandate would end in the middle of their flight, Tansley said they likely wouldn’t have flown at all. She and her husband are now considering driving across the country instead of taking their scheduled return flight.
“I could hear the excitement in the pilot’s voice, and I can empathize with him — I know it has to have been very difficult to be in a very high-pressure job in cramped quarters and wearing a mask,” Tansley told BuzzFeed News, adding that she refrained from vocalizing her frustrations on board because she feared it would put her family in an unsafe position. “But what upset me was that he made a call for everyone midflight, without taking into consideration the diverse circumstances of the passengers on board.”
Even though airplanes have efficient ventilation and filtration, experts say coronavirus infection is still possible because passengers sit in close proximity to one another for long periods of time — a risk that’s greater now without mask orders in place. The same concept applies to other modes of public transport, like buses and trains.
A CDC spokesperson told BuzzFeed News via email that the agency “continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings at this time.”
“There’s a sense of panic to be honest,” said Fatima Khan, cofounder of Protect Their Future, a volunteer-based group of doctors, parents, and other advocates fighting to ensure children under 5 gain access to COVID vaccines. “A lot of families are really reaching their breaking point even before this [mask] ruling.
“This was just a lot of salt to the wound,” Khan added.
Just one week ago, Khan, mother to a 4- and 6-year-old, flew to see her in-laws for the first time in more than two years, a decision she felt comfortable making only because she knew everyone was going to be masked. Now, she doesn’t know how or if she’ll return home.
“It’s so frustrating because wearing masks is not a difficult thing to do,” Khan said. “It really shows how society looks at our most vulnerable. Our leaders are able to move mountains to safely bring vaccines to the adult population by following the science, but they're not really willing to do that for children.”
Katherine Matthias, 36, of South Carolina, said airports and airplanes “were oddly the one place” she felt “somewhat OK” taking her unvaccinated kids in the last two years, but now the news makes it seem like “mass infection is an acceptable outcome.”
“[Kids under 5] are just collateral damage in a political game,” Matthias told BuzzFeed News. “Public transportation is a necessity for many people who are at high risk of severe disease — they have the right to have a safe travel experience.”