As Americans head into the summer travel season, coronavirus cases — and hospitalizations somewhat — are rising in many parts of the country, especially in the Northeast.
This shift prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week to advise people in communities at high riskTrusted Source to go back to wearing masks in indoor public spaces, including on public transportation.
Face masks, though, are still optional in most places, even those with rising case numbers.
That leaves travelers to decide for themselves whether to don a mask while riding in an airplane, train, subway, or taxi.
While some Americans will welcome a mask-free summer, a Pew Research Center survey this month found that a majority of Americans think masks should still be required on airplanes and other forms of public transportation, where physical distancing is all but impossible.
Face mask support split along political party lines
In April, a federal judge in Florida struck down the CDC’s mask mandate for public transportation, which had been in place since January 2021Trusted Source.
The Department of Justice is appealing that decision after the CDC said the mask rule is “well within [its] legal authority to protect public health.”
Even after the federal mask mandate was dropped, 57 percent of Americans say travelers should wear a face mask while traveling on airplanes and other public transportation, according to Pew.
However, Americans’ support of face masks is split largely along party and similar lines.
Eighty percent of Democrats and independents who lean toward the Democratic party say passengers on airplanes, and other public transportation should be required to masks.
In contrast, only 29 percent of Republicans and independents who lean Republican say masks should be required.
Support for mandatory masks on public transportation is higher among those who had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine (66 percent) compared to the unvaccinated (25 percent)
In addition, people who are “very” or “somewhat” concerned that they will get the coronavirus and require hospitalization are more likely to be in favor of mask policies for public transportation.
Are Americans still wearing masks on planes?
Overall, mask use in the United States has declined since earlier in the pandemic.
Thirty percent of Americans say they have worn a mask “all or most of the time” over the past month when in stores or other businesses, according to the survey.
This is down from higher than 80 percent before the vaccines were available.
More Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents report frequent mask use in businesses (42 percent), compared to Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (14 percent).
Despite the decline in overall mask use, travel experts say many travelers are still wearing masks on flights.
“We see a fairly even distribution amongst clients who still prefer to mask, particularly those who do so in crowded or confined spaces such as airplanes and airports,” said McLean Robbins, a luxury travel advisor and owner of Lily Pond Luxury in Vienna, Virginia.
“Many clientele are still opting to mask, while others enjoy the flexibility to do so at their personal choice, given the specific situation or their own health conditions,” she added.
However, mask use on some flights has been lower.
Keri Baugh, a blogger at Bon Voyage With Kids, said that there were very few passengers wearing a mask on a recent flight from Boston to Memphis.
“I was actually surprised,” she said.
“That said, as the [COVID] numbers have started to go back up, I have personally heard of some [travelers] being more cautious,” she added.
Baugh said families with kids too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or who have a family member who is at risk of severe illness might be more likely to wear a mask on a flight.
Americans less bothered by unmasked travelers
As of May 18, over 32 percent of Americans live in a county with a medium or high COVID-19 community risk level, CDC director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky said Wednesday at a White House COVID-19 press briefing.
The CDC recommends that everyone in high-risk areas wear a mask in indoor public settings; those in medium-risk areas should consider wearing a mask based on their risk level.
However, “in [areas with] any COVID-19 community [risk] levels, individuals may always choose to wear a mask to protect themselves from infection,” said Walensky.
Throughout the pandemic, though, mask use has veered beyond just being a personal decision, with people from both sides weighing in on the choices of others.
The Pew survey shows that Americans are more tolerant of others who choose not to wear a mask in public.
Sixty-three percent of Americans say it bothers them “not too much” or “not at all” when people around them in public places don’t wear masks.
In contrast, 72 percent of Americans in November 2020 said they were bothered “some” or “a lot” by people not wearing masks. This was before the COVID-19 vaccines had been rolled out to the public.
Airlines have seen their fair share of disagreements over face masks, with some disputes descending reportedly into mid-flight brawls.
Baugh has been fortunate enough not to experience that kind of tension about masks while on a flight.
“On my most recent flight, the pilot asked everyone to respect everyone’s mask choice, regardless if that choice differed from their own,” she said, “And, from where I was sitting, that seemed to be the case.”
As more Americans take to the skies, rails, and roads this summer — with some masked and some unmasked — heeding this pilot’s advice could help make this a less stressful travel season.