Senators running out of patience on mask mandate for travelers

Buttigieg cites justifications for keeping restrictions for air travel

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., complained that certain restrictions due to COVID-19 were "hogwash." A mask mandate for air travel remains in effect even as restrictions are lifted elsewhere. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., complained that certain restrictions due to COVID-19 were "hogwash." A mask mandate for air travel remains in effect even as restrictions are lifted elsewhere. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 17, 2021 at 9:30am

Republican senators are expressing mounting impatience with the federal mask mandate for travelers, arguing that the lifting of restrictions in most public places should extend to airplanes, rail and transit.

In a markup of rail and safety legislation on Wednesday, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee rejected along party lines an amendment introduced by Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., that would end the mandate, but not before Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, acknowledged that he, too, was feeling impatient.

Schatz suggested that the Senate introduce a “sense of the Senate” resolution that would encourage the Biden administration to reconsider its rule, acknowledging that while the agencies are the experts on issues, they “are not infallible.”

“Sometimes they move slowly,” Schatz said. “Sometimes they’re a little too precautionary.”

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., backed the Scott amendment. “I think we should express the sense of this committee that what is being foisted on us now in the name of science is hogwash,” he said.

Hours later, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee, asked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg why travelers on airplanes were required to wear masks while those gathered in crowded airport bars were not.

She said she asked because of a recent conversation with two flight attendants who expressed concern about passengers who had become violent because of the mandate. The Federal Aviation Administration has received reports of about 2,500 unruly passengers this year.

Buttigieg said the mandate remains in place because of some unique circumstances, such as the fact that planes feature “a number of people from different places passing through the same small place,” as well as the presence of children on airplanes. No vaccine has been approved for those under 12.

“I share the impatience to be able to return to where they’re not required,” Buttigieg said of masks, but he said the process of removing that mandate is an interagency process guided by public health experts.

“This is something we need to continue to revisit,” he said. “And while I haven’t seen … a specific rubric that says if we hit this benchmark we can say goodbye to the masks, which we’re all eager to do, I do think it’s of course true that the sooner we get as many people as possible vaccinated, the sooner we can get there.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Jan. 29 required travelers to wear masks in order to prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 both while traveling and in transportation hubs such as airports and rail stations.

In mid-May, the CDC issued updated guidance, advising that fully vaccinated people could resume activities without a mask, but recommended those who had not been vaccinated continue to wear them. The travel requirement, however, remained unchanged.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA said in a statement that they remain supportive of the mask mandate, which is in place through Sept. 13.

Budget

Buttigieg spoke during an appearance before the appropriations panel to defend President Joe Biden’s proposed $88 billion transportation budget for fiscal 2022, which includes a 14.3 percent increase in discretionary funding.

The budget includes $25.7 billion in discretionary spending over the fiscal 2021 enacted budget, a $411 million increase, according to Collins. But it also includes $621 billion for transportation programs as part of a sweeping $2 trillion infrastructure proposal that has become Biden’s key economic priority.

The budget includes boosts to Amtrak and aviation safety, but also prioritizes climate change and equity. It proposes a new $110 million “Thriving Communities” pilot program, which Buttigieg said would push the administration’s equity goals.

Buttigieg cited St. Paul, Minn., Pittsburgh and New Orleans as examples of cities “where we’ve seen a piece of federally funded highway infrastructure, for example, literally cut a community in half.”

“We’ve got a chance to do something about that,” he said. “Sometimes that means capping a highway and reclaiming the land that was torn up in order to produce it. Other times it means introducing bridges over or tunnels under or transit routes around these divisions. But the most important thing is to make sure that transportation really does connect.”

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