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Perspective: Want families to fly again? End the mask mandate

Families are driving across the country to see relatives because they’re worried about being kicked off flights

Wearing a face mask to prevent COVID-19 and traveling with this grandmother and mother Karter Morrow, 2, waits in line to check-in for a flight to Long Beach from Dallas Love Field Airport May 28, 2021. According to Morrow’s grandmother, this is their first trip since the pandemic began. The mask mandate on air flights is forcing many families to consider other ways to travel during the holidays.
LM Otero, Associated Press

Last week, President Joe Biden effectively put millions of American families on a no-fly list, one that has been growing for nearly two years. It’s not explicit: Of course, most Americans can technically fly. But in reality, there are many families for whom it’s become impossible, thanks to COVID-19 mandates surrounding air travel.

The Hill reported that the Transportation Security Administration is poised to keep a mask mandate for flying through at least March. 18. According to the report, “Individuals who do not comply with the mandate will face a minimum fine of $500 with repeat offenders facing fines as high as $3,000.”

By now, you’ve seen the viral videos of the families forcibly removed from flights because their child, usually a toddler, is unable or unwilling to be masked for the duration of the flight. Those videos aren’t just traumatic for the unfortunate individuals finding themselves at the center of a firestorm; they have a way of intimidating anyone with a young child or disabled individual unable to mask from even attempting public transportation of any kind.

In my conversations with several parents, the prospect of becoming one of “those parents” was intimidating. Ashley, the wife of a Marine separated from their extended family, told me about the weddings and births that she has missed due to her inability to fly with a mask-resistant 4-year-old. She told me, “The idea of spending ridiculous amounts of money on airline tickets to be removed from a flight (without a refund) ... is infuriating.”

Another military family feels similarly trapped and separated not just from extended family, but from each other. Kelsey Hall, the mother of a toddler, is looking down the barrel at not being able to see her husband at his ports of call when he deploys with the Navy because she’s unable to travel with their child to meet him there. “I don’t want to risk a six-plus-hour flight (each way) when she can’t keep a mask on for longer than five minutes,” she told me.

Despite all of the things the World Health Organization has gotten wrong over the course of this pandemic, this issue is egregious enough to make one wish the WHO was setting public health policy, not the CDC. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention holds that anyone 2 years and older can and should be able to wear a mask, the WHO rightly asserts, “Children aged 5 years and under should not be required to wear masks. This is based on the safety and overall interest of the child and the capacity to appropriately use a mask with minimal assistance.”

It’s not just parents spooked by horror stories about airlines kicking off noncompliant passengers, either. Mary, the Illinois wife of a man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, has not flown since 2019. She told me, “I wouldn’t want to put him in a position that would exacerbate his confusion, which he experiences frequently. The lack of compassion and patience I hear about and read about is extremely disgusting, discouraging and frustrating. Any form of disrespectful tone toward him if his mask were to slip or if he forgot to put it up would be a test of my patience. What if I couldn’t get a seat next to him? There is definitely no way we would fly then.”

Even with documented proof of exemption, the situation is untenable for many. Tammy, a mother in Washington state, told me about an incident her autistic son experienced on a state ferry, which is governed by TSA rules. She told me, “He had a ferry worker confront him in May in an incredibly aggressive fashion, demanding to see proof of exemption. He now refuses to ride.” Flying is out of the question for the family until the mask mandate is dropped.

It can feel positively suffocating to be grounded, explained Allison Hovanec, a mother in Anchorage, Alaska. She told me, “The only realistic way for our family of five to leave the state is via a plane. Driving through Canada or taking a ferry takes days and can be dangerous in winter. I have a 2-year-old boy, and I’m not willing to risk our family being effectively banned from leaving the state forever based on my son’s mask compliance. There’s no end in sight for my family. We miss our friends and family tremendously. … I pray none of us have a medical emergency that warrants transfer to Seattle. One parent would be stuck here in Alaska.”

Megan, a military wife and mother from North Carolina, is stationed with her young children far from extended family and is looking at a second Christmas separated from them. Like many parents, she’s worried she might find herself stranded halfway across the country if they are removed from their flight home. Instead, they plan to drive across the country.

She fumed, “Fun fact: Did you know the reason they allow lap children on airplanes instead of requiring every infant and toddler be in a car seat? It’s not because it’s safe to hold infants in your lap. It’s because statistically, requiring every infant to (have) a seat will make more families choose to drive instead of fly, which as a whole would lead to more injuries and fatalities (because driving is much more dangerous than flying). Where are the people who made those rules now? I am so frustrated that we are being forced into making this decision. The ones passing these laws have clearly never met a 2-year-old, much less had one themselves.”

Many parents I spoke with feel a sense of desperation. Travis Goode, a father from Houston, Texas, recounted, “Since March of 2020, I’ve tried to remain optimistic. I can’t tell you how many times my wife has asked ‘how long will they keep doing this?’ To which I respond, ‘They have to end it within the next couple months.’ It hasn’t happened. We haven’t flown with the kids since the mandate and will not fly again until it is ended. We’ve driven 48 hours round-trip to see (my wife’s) family. Twice. In 2021. Those trips are tough, but family is important.”

Biden’s latest announcement was a blow to millions of American families, including mine. Like many other mandates and restrictions stemming from COVID-19, there are no off-ramps and no urgency about moving back towards normalcy. It doesn’t just mean fewer family vacations; it means a second year of restrictions on our freedom of movement for virtue of having young children or disabled family members.

Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for the Deseret News and an editor at Ricochet.com.