Mask Ruling Underscores Deep Split in Attitudes

Wearing masks during the pandemic has long been a divisive issue in the United States. And now that a federal judge has tossed out the mask mandate for planes and public transportation, rules in some places have been thrown into chaos. Many were lifted, and a few reimposed.

But even as the changes cause some confusion, Americans’ attitudes toward the restrictions have wavered little in recent months and, in fact, are still impassioned. Some who are already in the habit of masking in public and see Covid-19 cases rising again in parts of the country are angry at losing the protection they have relied on. Others are elated by the release from those irritating bands behind their ears.

“Ecstatic” was the way Patrick McDonnell, a 30-year-old architect from Brooklyn, described his feelings, adding, “Enough is enough.” Mr. McDonnell said he found wearing a mask “annoying” and “uncomfortable” and has already stopped masking on the New York City subway, even though face coverings are still required on mass transit in the city.

“Adults should be able to make their own decisions regarding the risks they’re willing to take,” Mr. McDonnell said. As for masking for the sake of fellow riders who are older or in poor health, he said that vaccines and treatments are now available for Covid-19, and he should no longer have to alter his behavior to accommodate others.

“I want to get back to living my life,” he said. “Do I have to factor in everyone in the world around me when I make a decision?”

Mr. McDonnell was one of thousands who responded to a New York Times callout asking how readers felt about the court decision lifting the mandate, if they would continue to mask while on planes, buses and trains and if they were reconsidering travel plans. The respondents are not representative of the U.S. population.

Public opinion surveys before the court ruling found mixed views. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey of 1,243 adults conducted in March reported that eight in 10 adults said they had worn a mask indoors recently, but only six in 10 people wanted mask-wearing in some public spaces to continue to minimize the spread of Covid and to prevent another surge. But the poll also found that respondents were evenly split over whether to extend the mask mandate for public transportation or let it expire. People of color, lower-income individuals and those with chronic health problems were more likely to favor masking policies, as were Democrats.

Another survey of 1,085 adults in mid-April by The Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 56 percent of respondents favored requiring masks on public transportation, while about one-fourth opposed them and a fifth had no opinion either way.

The U.S. government is appealing the decision that said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not have the authority to impose the mask mandate for transportation, which was set to expire in early May.

Since the ruling on Monday, some cities have decided to keep their mask mandates for public transit in place, although the rules do not appear to be enforced much. Most states or cities that had imposed some type of mask restrictions for indoor gatherings lifted them a while ago. And some Southern and Western states had forbidden any type of masking rule, so public transportation — via airlines, trains, subways or buses — remained one of the last holdouts beyond hospitals and health care sites.

Britain dropped its coronavirus travel restrictions last month, even as cases there surged, and British Airways and Virgin Atlantic airlines made mask-wearing optional, unless the destination required masks. Now other airlines are following suit, making masks optional on flights to the United States.

Responses to The Times’s query were often tied to personal circumstances: Older individuals, parents of young children and those with family members in poor health were particularly incensed by the lifting of the mandate and said it would prevent them from seeing loved ones after they had been separated for two years. Younger adults, including many young men boasting of their good health, were the most vocal in expressing enthusiasm for ending the mandate, saying it would help life return to normal. And some said lifting the rules was inevitable.

Resistance to masks had been building over time, even in tight quarters like airplanes and as cases of Omicron subvariants began rising around the country a month or so ago. Though hospitalizations and deaths have not risen in tandem — those indicators previously started increasing several weeks after cases did — the uptick worried some of the readers who responded to The Times. They called the judge’s decision “premature,” “political,” “unwise and irresponsible,” even “unconscionable.”

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” several wrote in warning. Parents of young children expressed particular concern, given that those under 5 still are not eligible for a vaccine and one might not be available before summer.

Ashley Eckstat, 35, a mother of three from Greensboro, N.C., said she had hoped that the mandate would remain in place until Covid shots were authorized for the youngest children.

“I just want to yell: The promise of returning to normal was dependent on vaccinations, and we still have lot of vulnerable children,” Ms. Eckstat said. “We’re only as protected as our least protected family member.”

Others who had boarded planes or made travel plans with the understanding that there was a mask mandate said they were outraged when the rules changed midflight. John Barcelo, 81, a retired law professor, had flown to California with his wife to visit their son and his family and very deliberately booked a return flight on a date when the mask mandate was supposed to still be in place — Monday, April 18.

But while they were flying from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport to their home in New Orleans, the mandate was struck down and American Airlines announced that it was no longer requiring masks. Some passengers cheered, but Mr. Barcelo and his wife felt trapped — and vulnerable.

“All these people took their masks off, not thinking at all about anyone else, just about themselves,” he recalled. “What is so onerous about wearing a mask for Pete’s sake?”

American Airlines did not respond to questions about the rule change.

But many travelers said masks were a nuisance and that it is “time to move on.” They questioned the effectiveness of masks. Now that vaccines were available and some treatments for Covid had been developed, they said, the virus did not pose a big risk, and there were other risks in life.

“There are risks to driving a car, and to walking down the street,” said Kelly Johnson, 62, an education consultant from southeastern Virginia who travels by plane for work. She said she would abide by any masking rules that are in place but that, at this point, “Risks are low enough with Covid that people should have the option of wearing a mask or not.”

Chris Stapleton, 40, of Miami, whose doctor told him he had the “health of an 18-year-old,” said most people didn’t wear high-quality masks and didn’t wear them properly anyway and that people with conditions like cancer could continue to wear masks to protect themselves.

Peter Ciopryna, on the other hand, has a wife who was recently diagnosed with lupus and is on medication that suppresses the immune system. Mr. Ciopryna, a 62-year-old truck driver from Branford, Conn., said, “No one cares about the immuno-compromised. She lives in constant fear.”

A sense of sadness and disappointment permeated many responses as Americans lamented the fact that the nation is so deeply polarized and ideologically divided that a consensus could not be reached for the greater good.

“A true sense of community responsibility no longer exists in this country,” said the Rev. Chip Lee, 74, an Episcopal priest in Garrett County, Md. “Some of the argument comes down to, ‘Nobody’s going to tell me what to do with my body.’ But we don’t all live in our own cocoons.”

Still, some individuals who lost loved ones to Covid were ready to cast off their masks.

Jackie Wammock, 60, of Aiken, S.C., lost her mother to the virus last year, but she had Covid herself and has recovered. “My fear of illness is not that high,” she said, adding that she wouldn’t wear a mask unless she had symptoms suggesting illness. In that case, she said, “There’s a responsibility to others.”

Some people said they would keep their masks on and continue to travel. Others said they would be canceling plans to attend graduations and other family events. Mr. Barcelo was one of several who said they would be driving instead of flying this summer if they could. Emerald North, a 71-year-old painter and sculptor from Cochiti Lake, N.M., said she would be willing to drive long distances — up to 1,000 miles — to avoid flying.

Some who can afford to do so said they would upgrade to first class or business class to ensure better social distancing on planes and trains.

Others are altering their plans. Dr. Ellen Tabor, a doctor in New York City who works at a nonprofit, dropped plans for a trip to Italy in order to minimize her risk of exposure. She will be vacationing in Columbia County, N.Y., instead.

“Masks are one small burden,” Dr. Tabor said. “The virus is a big one.”

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