Although we’ve seen significant progress in preventing and treating severe cases of COVID-19, thanks to vaccines and therapeutics, we still face a raging debate over remaining governmental restrictions, including those on personal travel.
The Biden administration has regularly imposed or extended heavy-handed mandates. Courts have struck down or blocked some of these, including a vaccine requirement for federal workers, attempting to impose a vaccine mandate through businesses and other organizations, and needlessly prolonging the eviction moratorium.
With the wave associated with the omicron variant subsiding—nationwide case averages are down 94% compared to mid-January—many governments and agencies finally are relaxing rules and changing their tone. Even Left Coast states are moving closer to normality, allowing for more personal choice and responsibility.
At the federal level, two mandates on personal travel are still in place:
- A masking requirement that covers airports, commercial flights, buses, and trains.
- A testing requirement for those on incoming flights from other countries.
The mask mandate for various forms of travel is scheduled to expire March 18, although Biden administration officials are extremely vague about whether it will be extended. The testing requirement has no expiration date and there are no signs that it will be removed.
In response to this uncertainty, a coalition including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, airlines, and the hotel industry sent a letter Feb. 25 to the Biden administration asking for relief from the mandates. With business travel down 50% and international travel down 78% compared to 2019, a huge number of jobs are at stake. (Mass transit ridership is also well below 2019 levels).
[Editor’s note: The Transportation Security Administration will extend the mask mandate for travelers until April 18, acting on a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fox News reported Thursday.]
Support for the travel-related mandate comes from a predictable source: labor unions. Following in the footsteps of the National Education Association’s demanding mask mandates for schoolchildren, the union representing flight attendants wants the aviation mask mandate extended.
It would be one thing if these travel mandates were vital pillars of public health standing in the way of catastrophe. However, this is plainly not the case:
- Airplanes rapidly recirculate air through high-end filters, making them much less likely to facilitate contagion compared to other enclosed settings that don’t have mask or testing requirements.
- Mask mandates have been an abject failure at broadly containing the spread of the coronavirus, despite what mandate promoters claim. Some of this has to do with the ineffective nature of cloth masks most commonly used by the public. Further, with two years of global data to work with, it is now clear that mask mandates can’t prevent or even meaningfully slow outbreaks.
In contrast with the ineffectiveness of mandates, individuals who are concerned about catching COVID-19 can choose to wear properly fitted N95 masks, which are dramatically better than cloth masks for blocking airborne viruses.
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 88% of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 89% of seniors are fully vaccinated. Those who are vaccinated face dramatically lower risk of complications from an infection, and boosters provide even more protection.
Americans had more than enough time to decide whether to get shots, and natural antibodies following infection also provide measurable protection. Meanwhile, children face much lower risks than adults due to the nature of the virus. As such, the case for universal anti-COVID-19 requirements is increasingly shaky.
The Biden administration should follow the lead of governors across the country by removing the remaining federal COVID-19 mandates for travel. Not only would this benefit the travel and hospitality industries, it would further signal that we can move on from collective panic about the disease and finally return to normal.
Humanity should be learning to live with COVID-19 and focus on minimizing the number of severe cases with vaccines and treatments, rather than seeking the impossible goal of eradication. As there is no persuasive reason for nationwide travel mandates for masking or testing, the federal government should allow airlines and local transit agencies (which are more accountable to the public) to decide rules for themselves.
In addition, federal and state legislatures should take a closer look at how much unilateral power has been ceded to the president, governors, and executive agencies under the guise of public health. Allowing one person to impose emergency measures with no expiration date represents the antithesis of our nation’s founding purpose and principles.
It’s past time for America’s leaders to deliver realistic expectations about what the future holds, and to stop imposing unworkable, ineffective, and even illegal mandates on the public.
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