There is growing bipartisan support to end restrictive pandemic travel policies, such as mandatory masking and health passports.
Twenty-one states are suing the federal government to end face-covering requirements for public transportation and air travel, and the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan resolution under the Congressional Review Act revoking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) travel mask rule.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who introduced the resolution, is also the sponsor of the “Travel Mask Mandate Repeal Act of 2021,” which would prohibit future mandates, and Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) introduced a companion bill (H.R. 4441) in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Today, the Senate said enough is enough and sent a message to unelected government bureaucrats to stop the anti-science nanny-state requirement of travel mask mandates,” wrote Paul.
Though there is bipartisan support in the House for Biggs’ legislation, it is unlikely to succeed, says Citizens for Free Speech Director Patrick Wood, who supports the bill.
“It is unlikely that Speaker Pelosi will allow H.R. 4441 to come up for a vote, but if she does, there will be crossover votes from Democrats to allow passage,” said Wood. “The president has said he would veto it if passed.”
Airlines Change Course
Throughout the pandemic, most airlines required passengers to wear masks, but there was no federal mandate until President Biden issued an executive order directing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the CDC, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and other agencies to enforce mask requirements.
However, major airlines have turned against mandates they previously supported.
The chief executives of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and several other carriers have petitioned the federal government to allow the mask mandates to expire.
They stated the air filtration systems on passenger aircraft eliminate pathogens, making masks unnecessary, in testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, in December.
On April 11, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, Ashish Jha told NBC it is possible the transportation mask mandate could be extended beyond April 18.
“This is a CDC decision, and I think it is absolutely on the table, ” said Jha.
Masks Cause Turbulence
Mask mandates were an issue in more than two-thirds of the 6,000 reports of unruly passenger behavior to the FAA in 2021.
The TSA has issued over $600,000 in fines to more than 900 passengers for noncompliance with face mask requirements since February 2021. The incidents occurred in the air, at airports, at transit stations, and on public transit.
Conflicts onboard airlines are concerning, says Competitive Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Joel M. Zinberg, M. D.
“Unfortunately, the mask mandates have precipitated a lot of really ugly confrontations between unruly passengers and the aircrews, and that’s something that endangers everyone on board, said Zinberg. “Probably a lot more than COVID does.”
There is little rationale for continuing airline mandates, says Zinberg.
“You’ve gotten to some of the lowest levels of hospitalizations since the very early days of the pandemic back in spring of 2020, and all the states and most major cities are dropping indoor mask mandates,” said Zinberg. “So, it really doesn’t make much sense to continue these airline mandates.”
Airline passengers are safer from COVID-19 than at home, says Zinberg.
“The air quality on an aircraft is really better than any other indoor environment that we have, short of a medical facility like an operating room or a specialized laboratory,” said Zinberg.
Similarly, the rationale for vaccine passports, which are not required to fly, but have been used privately by cruise lines and others, has faded, says Zinberg.
“Breakthrough cases are now common,” said Zinberg. “They’re not the exception. So, it no longer makes much sense to ask people to show a passport when in fact it’s not going to be protecting them, and it’s not an assurance that they are not positive or might pose a threat to someone else.”
Although governments are ending their restrictions, there are signs COVID-19 mandates could change travel long-term.
Italy and other countries that implemented passports have begun to repeal them—sometimes despite rising COVID-19 case levels—but after the United Kingdom ended its mask mandate, British Airways and other carriers decided to continue them voluntarily.
Vaccine passports, which were never implemented at the federal level, could become a permanent fixture of travel.
Some states have banned government agencies from requiring vaccine passports and other states, such as Florida, have banned businesses from requiring proof of vaccination from their customers. However, 21 states plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, now offer access to the SMART Health Card, a digital health record that can be used as a vaccine passport.
Mandates ‘Violate Individual Rights’
Legislators and officials have not done more to end the restrictions because they want to be seen taking action against COVID-19, says Zinberg.
“I think there’s a bit of inertia—they haven’t gotten around to it—and some of it is performative,” said Zinberg said. “They want to show that they’re doing something, and one of the ways the government indicates concern and performance is by enforcing these mandates.”
Vaccine passports and mask mandates violate individual rights under the U.S. Constitution, says Woods.
“If the government operated in a constitutional manner, it would forbid all federal agencies, states, or private businesses from issuing or requiring a proof of vaccine or a vaccine passport,” said.
“Since a large part of society travels, it is a way to force compliance or you won’t travel at all, thus limiting your freedom of movement.”