It’s just gotten easier to spot the Canadians in an American airport — look for masks.
Air travel rules within North America took on a striking contrast on Tuesday after a Florida judge struck down the mask requirements for U.S. airlines and the Biden administration delayed a decision on whether to appeal.
Meanwhile Canada is keeping its pandemic precautions.
All of which made for divergent scenes at Reagan National Airport near downtown Washington.
In most of that airport, as in most of the United States, mask-wearing is now decidedly optional. There were faces covered here and there on Tuesday.
It was nothing like the cluster of concealed mugs surrounding baggage carousel 4A in Terminal A — the airport’s unofficial Little Canada. Virtually everyone there remained masked.
‘I’m not taking off my mask’
When asked about the U.S. policy change, Sunnie Peck of Winnipeg mock-slapped herself in the forehead to express her bafflement.
“I’m not taking off my mask,” said Peck, who had been visiting her grandkids in Washington, and was preparing to board a return flight through Toronto.
“There’s science. Whether you believe in it or not.”
Peck says she’s happy Canada hasn’t followed in ditching mask requirements amid a pandemic that has killed many millions worldwide, and for which hospitalization rates are still quite high in Canada and in some other countries.
Some travelers agreed, like one woman who, asked about the policy change, pointed at her chin and said: “That’s why I put two masks on.”
The pandemic does appear to be in a relative lull, however, in the U.S. And several said now’s the time to move on to voluntary mask-wearing.
Lainie Weinstein of Toronto had just spent a few days with her U.S.-born husband visiting family in Washington and they were in no hurry to mask up.
She said she’s “all for” the U.S. move.
“If you want to wear a mask, you can wear a mask. If you don’t want to wear a mask, you don’t have to. So it’s up to each individual person.”
Asked whether she feels most Canadians share that view, she said: “Absolutely not.”
Her husband Scott Weinstein concurred that there’s an obvious cultural contrast between his native U.S. and new home: “It’s definitely a lot stricter in Canada,” he said.
But he said he was fine sliding on that covering for the trip to Toronto.
“It’s an hour flight, so we’ll survive,” he said.
Celebrations on some flights
The rules aren’t just inconsistent across the continent. There’s anecdotal evidence of different practices on different planes.
While some passengers from Canada said there was universal mask-wearing on their flights, people on one Canada-U.S. flight were said to have enjoyed looser requirements.
One passenger on a Delta flight from Calgary to Minneapolis said some people cheered when the crew announced masks were now optional.
Andrea van Vugt, a trade expert and adviser to former prime minister Stephen Harper, was on the flight and said about half the passengers wore masks, and half didn’t.
Delta pilot announces end of the mask mandate just before takeoff, passengers cheer. <a href=”https://t.co/MUkRIHAtO4″>pic.twitter.com/MUkRIHAtO4</a>
In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle of Florida said the Biden administration had not only exceeded its legal rights with the mask mandate, but also skipped the required procedural steps that should have allowed for public comment.
Mizelle was appointed to the court in the final weeks of the Trump administration, for which her husband, Chad Mizelle, worked as legal counsel in the White House and in the Department of Homeland Security.
The American Bar Association had called Mizelle unqualified to be a judge; it described her as smart, hard-working and “delightful” but lacking the necessary legal experience.
So, should Americans still wear masks on planes?
“[It’s] up to them,” U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters Tuesday.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the administration was reviewing the case and said the policy should be guided by public-health experts, not the courts.
The U.S. Centers For Disease Control recently extended the mandate to May 3, pending its review.
Among the inevitable concerns for policy-makers and travelers is whether vulnerable people can protect themselves in the absence of widespread masking.
Some public-health experts have expressed confidence that a high-quality mask can deliver significant protection against virus transmission.
But masking policy is also a political decision, and American politics is unsettled on the issue — offering no obvious option for Biden, with midterm elections months away.
Politics at play
There’s some evidence Americans want mask mandates to continue on planes: 60 per cent do, according to a new Harris poll.
Yet the percentage of Americans wearing masks on a regular basis is declining, even in a city like Washington which until recently had its own mask mandate.
Fewer than half of Americans, 44 per cent, now wear masks around other people, according to a recent Associated Press poll which showed a steep drop from last year.
Independent voters are even less likely to wear masks than the national average, says a recent Economist-YouGov poll.
So Biden and his staff will sort through the virus data, their legal prospects and the politics as they weigh their response to a Florida judge.
In the meantime, two years into a deadly pandemic, it’s a moment of transition in the North American neighbourhood, and you can see it on the face of air travelers.
Or in the case of one pocket of that neighbourhood, around baggage carousel 4A, around half their face.