Last week, the CEOs of American Airlines and Southwest Airlines told Congress that they do not think mask requirements make much sense on airplanes, where the air filtration systems are superior to what is typically found in an intensive care unit.
"I think the case is very strong that masks don't add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment," said Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest. "It is very safe and very high quality compared to any other indoor setting."
Unwilling to let anyone undermine the case for keeping a government mandate in place, White House coronavirus advisor Anthony Fauci threw cold water on the idea.
"You have to be wearing a mask on a plane," he said bluntly on television Sunday.
When ABC News' Jon Karl asked Fauci specifically if he thought we would ever reach the point where we did not need to wear masks on planes, he responded: "I don't think so. I think when you're dealing with a closed space, even though the filtration is good, that you want to go that extra step when you have people—you know, you get a flight from Washington to San Francisco, it's well over a five-hour flight. Even though you have a good filtration system, I still believe that masks are a prudent thing to do, and we should be doing it."
This is Faucism distilled down to its very essence. For the government health bureaucrats who have given themselves sole authority over vast sectors of American life—from travel to education to entertainment to housing—it doesn't matter what the CEOs of these companies think. It doesn't matter what their customers want. It doesn't matter if maskless air travel is, for the most part, quite safe (especially for the vaccinated). It doesn't matter if the mask mandate makes air travel impossible for families with young children. All that matters is the calculus of the most risk-averse people: unelected public health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Like Fauci, NIH Director Frances Collins said this past weekend that air passengers should be masked—and should think twice about large gatherings, and even about going anywhere at all.
"I'm not going to say you shouldn't travel, but you should do so very carefully," he said, before adding that the unvaccinated should definitely remain at home.
These pronouncements come during another pivotal moment in the pandemic: the rise of omicron variant, which appears to be at least as infectious as delta, capable of evading some amount of prior protection, but perhaps less lethal. Taking their cues from the public health establishment, political leaders are rushing to reimpose punitive mitigation efforts. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser ended the city's "brief experiment with letting people make their own choices about masks," even though the mayor herself has flouted the mandate at various social gatherings throughout the summer. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul initially said that the state would not enforce the new mask mandate, but as cases continue to rise she abruptly reversed course and promised to send out inspectors.
These efforts reflect government officials' need to appear like they are doing something to battle COVID-19, even though it is no longer clear that mandates, lockdowns, and closures are doing much to prevent death. After D.C. reimposed the mask mandate over the summer in response to the delta wave, cases continued to rise due to the variant's increased infectiousness, but the death rate remained exactly the same—probably because vaccination rates are quite high.
Indeed, the vaccine is the only public health innovation doing much to save people's lives from COVID-19, but it's obviously not the case that we are just one more round of booster shots away from triumphing over the disease. The reality is that COVID-19 will be with us for years to come, no matter how faithfully people wear masks, practice social distancing, and get boosted.
Yet the Faucists talk about COVID-19 as if the pandemic is still some kind of we're-all-in-this-together civilizational struggle that justifies and necessitates the suspension of civil liberties, whole industries, and school time. In his ABC interview, Fauci told Karl that he's never walking away from his position of authority until COVID-19 is defeated.
"You know, we're in a war, Jon," he said. "It's kind of like we're halfway through World War II, and you decide, well, I think I've had enough of this. I'm walking away. You can't do that. You've got to finish it—and we're going to finish this and get back to normal."
But the U.S. government is unlikely to ever defeat COVID-19 in the same sense that it defeated Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. In the meantime, the government is claiming more and more power for itself; this power is being wielded by the agencies least accountable to the democratic process, and it is being used to enact harmful restrictions on people's lives that will apparently last for years, for decades, or forever. Americans still remove their shoes and belts in order to board air planes, even though the event that inspired this policy happened more than 20 years ago—and even though the evidence against this policy is overwhelming.
The Faucists clearly want to make masks just as permanent as the TSA: Indeed, they have said so explicitly, as Fauci just did. At every stage of the pandemic, public health bureaucrats have uttered some version of the sentence Now is not the time to ease up. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Not as long as they are in charge.