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The federal transportation mask mandate may be dead, but masking is not

When the federal transportation mask mandate was abruptly halted in April 2020 after a federal judge ruling in Florida, many air travelers rejoiced. As such, you would expect to see few mask wearers on airplanes and in airports. 

Fast forward three months: Reported COVID-19 cases are surging and hospitalizations on the rise. With at-home testing now more prevalent, the actual number of new infections may be over 1 million each day. Are people noticing and are they concerned?

During a stopover at a Washington area airport, I decided to try to answer this question with a small experiment and see what the masking barometer looked like.

Although I could not completely control my data collection exercise, avoiding double counting people was a priority. Therefore, I settled myself on the airport’s secure side near the entrance of a concourse. I also wanted to focus only on passengers, hence did not include flight crews and airport staff in my tabulation. 

The first phase was to focus only on travelers entering the concourse, those connecting from another flight in another concourse or those beginning their journey at the airport. 

The ratio of male to female flyers was around 58-to-42. Among the men, 31 percent were wearing a mask, while 37 percent of women were doing so. Overall, 33 percent of all these travelers were masking up. This meant that women were slightly more likely to be wearing a mask than men.

I then counted people exiting the same concourse. These are also travelers either making a connection in another concourse or those arriving to their final destination and were departing the airport. One would expect that these ratios and percentages would be around the same as the entering passengers.

They mostly were. The ratio of male to female flyers was around 53-to-47. Among the men, 28 percent were wearing a mask, while 42 percent of women were doing so. This means that amongst these travelers, women were more likely to be wearing a mask than men. Overall, 35 percent of all these travelers were masking up.

When combining the entering and exiting passengers, 29 percent of men were wearing a mask, 40 percent of women were doing so and 34 percent of all travelers were masking up. Given the size of my sample (812 travelers in total), all these numbers are accurate to within 3 percent. 

So, what useful insights can be gleaned from this data collection exercise?

Women clearly are more mask adherent than men. This is consistent with results reported out of a Chicago airport. 

The majority of masks being worn were N95 and KN94, followed by surgical masks. There were a smattering of cloth masks, but these were more the exception than the rule.

One other observation is that those who were wearing masks were indeed wearing them correctly, covering both their mouth and nose. This is in contrast to many people during the mask mandate often wearing them around their chin rather than their mouth and nose, or leaving their nose completely exposed.

Lastly, hearing numerous people coughing at airports is now commonplace. During the mask mandate, this was less common. Although coughing does not indicate with certainty that a person is infected with COVID-19, it is a noticeable change from what was occurring during the mask mandate. 

The face mask mandate is dead. The Biden administration’s appeal to get it reinstated through the courts appears to be more show than substance. Travelers are voting with their masks when they choose to bear their face during air travel. With the midterm elections less than four months away, every vote matters in who will control the House and Senate. Policies viewed as antagonistic are not in either party’s best interests. 

At the same time, around one-third of travelers are sticking with masks. Some people embrace the benefits masks offer to reduce COVID-19 transmission, while others remain unconvinced of their utility. What is apparent is the type of mask worn and how a mask is worn, among those who choose to wear one.

Masks are a risk reduction — not a risk elimination — tool. But with all techniques that reduce risk, it is often how the techniques are applied that allow their benefits to be realized. 

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His specialty is data science, with applications in public policy and public health.

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