ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: A sensible shift away from COVID mask mandates

The Charlotte Observer

Last week, a video taken on a JetBlue airplane went viral. It wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from this genre of content: there was no person behaving badly, or causing a scene. Instead, it was the pilot of a JetBlue plane telling customers they were allowed to fly mask-free, per a Florida judge. The crowd cheered sporadically and quickly. Otherwise, it was unclear how many people actually removed their masks following the announcement.

The Florida judge, Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, is a Donald Trump appointee who has never tried a case and was considered “unqualified” by the American Bar Association. The case is going to be appealed by the U.S. Department of Justice, so long as the CDC says that it still believes masks are necessary.

While the decision is controversial, we would be remiss to call it surprising. It’s part of the new phase of the pandemic we’re entering, and a continuation of the same issues we’ve seen since 2020: If we want to stay safe, we must take precautions. But now, those precautions are increasingly up to us instead of being the products of mandates.

The shift comes as health experts are giving mixed reviews on the state of the pandemic. Two infectious disease experts at Duke University said Friday that they believe another spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths is unlikely, since we’re nearly to herd immunity. Other experts are saying it’s not the right time. All of them agree that keeping masks on is important for those with weakened immune systems.

All agree on this, as well: While it’s still entirely possible to get COVID-19 if you’re vaccinated and boosted, the chances of hospitalization and death are slim.

All of which makes mask mandates less necessary than they once were. On airplanes, particularly, Mizelle’s ruling seems understandable. You must be vaccinated or have proof of a negative COVID-19 test before boarding, and planes have exceptional air quality compared to, say, buses or trains.

Plus, whether we like it or not, mask mandates are not really working. People take them off to eat and keep them off, whether on planes or at a restaurant. Folks still don’t know how to wear them right. At some point, we have to acknowledge that this “requirement” isn’t enforceable or as effective as it once was.

P hiladelphia announced Friday that the city was rescinding its mask mandate after reinstating it earlier in the week. While the health department is still encouraging masks, officials made the decision after a week of “decreasing hospitalizations and a leveling of case counts.” In North Carolina and across the country, mask mandates in even the most cautious towns have been lifted in favor of mask “recommendations.”

Maybe this is our new normal: oscillating between spikes that are less severe for the vaccinated, and periods of unmasking when enough people have caught and recovered from the virus. No one wants to mask anymore, and for those of us willing to risk flu-like sickness, they seem unnecessary.

Now, COVID-19 protection is largely up to you, same as so many other choices we make with our health. You have to stay up-to-date on the latest information about COVID-19. You have to choose to wear the best mask, and you have to choose to test yourself regularly.

It’s hard to get over the anxieties of the pandemic, and for many people it isn’t unfounded. People living in the margins — the poor, the unhoused, the disabled — have had and will continue to have a harder time than others. But for those people who are vaccinated, an unenforceable mandate no longer makes as much sense.

In another viral social media post, a recent traveler remarked that they were offered Champagne by Delta airlines to celebrate the mask mandate lift. We aren’t saying it’s time to break out the bubbly, but maybe it is time for each of us to take risks on our terms.