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Judge’s mask ruling could make fighting the next pandemic harder

As uncertainty remains about the trajectory of the virus and future variants, the federal government should not lose one of its key tools to help contain its spread.

Airline passengers and crew members, some not wearing face masks following the end of COVID-19 public transportation rules, walk to flights in the Denver International Airport terminal on April 19.PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

When a federal judge struck down the nationwide transportation mask mandate, the news was quick to reach travelers across the country. Pilots announced the judge’s ruling mid-flight, allowing their passengers to remove their masks if they so pleased. Some cheered and waved their face coverings in the air. And one after another, airlines began releasing statements announcing that they would no longer require their customers to wear masks on flights. Delta Airlines even took some creative liberty with their announcement, declaring that COVID-19 had “transitioned to an ordinary seasonal virus” — a statement so premature that the airline had to walk it back.

Yes, wearing masks is a hassle, and two years into the COVID-19 pandemic it’s clear that many Americans’ patience with public health mandates is wearing thin. But the ruling is nothing to cheer, because of the precedent it would set. After all, the pandemic isn’t over — and someday there will be another. Masking should be part of the government’s toolkit if a surge in this pandemic, or some future crisis, warrants it.


Yet airlines were so thrilled with the decision that they took the ruling and ran with it before the Biden administration had a chance to respond. That’s unfortunate because the legal reasoning behind the Trump-appointed judge’s ruling is deeply flawed — hinging on what seems to be a deliberate misunderstanding of the word “sanitation.”

To make matters worse, President Biden undercut his own administration’s efforts to challenge the decision and keep masking requirements in place by saying that whether people should wear masks is simply “up to them.” Now, while the Department of Justice is appealing the decision, the politics of reimposing a mask mandate would be tricky. Though the majority of Americans do support a mask mandate for travel, the judge’s ruling — and Biden’s own comments — will only embolden the policy’s opponents and could encourage people to flout that policy if it were put back in place.


But as uncertainty remains about the trajectory of the virus and future variants, the federal government should not lose one of its key tools to help contain its spread. While the caseload has been relatively low as of late, positive cases are once again on the rise, and stricter measures may have to be reinstated to limit another potential surge — especially if a new and more dangerous strain emerges.

From a public health standpoint, the evidence has backed up the need for mask mandates, since studies have shown that they reduce the risk of transmitting the virus. While one-way masking with an N95 mask does offer someone ample protection even if others around them are unmasked, the reality is that it’s not as safe as a situation where everyone is masked, particularly in crowded spaces like a plane, bus, or subway car. So while removing a mask mandate when the number of new cases is low is not necessarily bad, the government ought to have the power to reinstate it at times of higher risk.

For their part, airlines should not have been so quick to remove the mandates — and now that they have, they have an obligation to prepare for the consequences. After British Airways dropped their mask mandate last month, following Britain’s loosening of COVID restrictions, the airline has been plagued with flight cancellations as a result of staff shortages caused by COVID infections. So as cases begin to rise, US airlines should be ready to see more staff shortages while gearing up for summer travel. It’s critical that their COVID policies, such as paid sick leave for quarantine periods, remain in place so that employees don’t feel compelled to show up to work sick and potentially pass on the virus to co-workers and passengers. (Ideally, airlines should be ready to impose mask mandates on their own when a new surge in cases starts to appear.)


The same applies to local transit agencies. The MBTA, for example, will no longer require riders to wear masks. But with the agency already dealing with driver shortages, removing a mask mandate will only add to the possibility of even more shortages due to COVID infections. That’s one reason Massachusetts should follow New York’s example and keep the mask mandate in place unless the CDC makes clear that masks are no longer a necessary public health measure.

For all the attention mask mandates on planes have received, they’re surely one of the smallest sacrifices that have been demanded of Americans during the pandemic. This administration, and future ones, should have this public-health tool at its disposal.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.