The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Mask-Wearing in Airports Post-Vacatur

In Houston, about 5% of passengers wore masks. In DCA, about 20% are wearing masks.


Last week I was at the airport, and in the air, when the mask mandate was vacated and lifted. On Sunday, I took a flight from Houston. By my count, about 5% of the passengers in the terminal were wearing masks. On Tuesday, I flew back home from Washington National. By my count, about 20% of the passengers are wearing masks. Virtually all of the pilots and flight attendants were unmasked. The only people consistently masked were airport employees.

At this point, in the absence of a mandate, passengers wearing masks are doing so by choice. Yet, most of those masking up were wearing cloth masks. We have known since at least January that cloth masks are relatively ineffective against Omicron. They provide minimal filtering of the air you breath in, and because of the loose fit, are poor at blocking whatever you exhale. Moreover, people do not keep their cloth masks free from moisture, further decreasing their usefulness. Paper masks are marginally better, since they are disposable. But again provide minimal filtering, and often have poor fits.  Starting in January, I had switched to wearing N95 masks exclusively. If I was wearing a mask, I wanted to wear something that would actually provide protection against the new variant.

Gary Leff from View From The Wing asks why passengers are sticking with the ineffective cloth masks, even in the absence of the mandate:

What I didn't understand was that a majority of people who were wearing masks were wearing either cloth or medical masks. I understand why people don't wear masks. And I understand why people choose to wear them when they are no longer required – to protect themselves – but I do not understand the choice to wear a cloth mask, which doesn't provide that protection.

Those who are critical of the mask mandate's end point out that masks protect the people around you from you, if you're infected, and the infectious period of Covid-19 prior to showing symptoms. Cloth masks didn't help with this. Medical masks likely do little against current variants. But better masks do help.

Perhaps cost is a factor. Though I think people who can afford to fly generally are able to purchase better masks, if they so choose Discomfort may also be a factor, as N95 masks may be tougher to breathe in. (I found the N95 pouch variants yielded the least amount of fog on my glasses.) But on balance, I don't understand why passenger who voluntarily wear masks are sticking with cloth masks.

I think these same questions exist for people wearing masks in other contexts where they are not mandated: why stick with cloth masks that are not effective against Omicron?