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Masks on a plane


Tom Nichols argues that at this point masks on commercial flights are a form of COVID theater, analogous to the security theater that requires flyers to remove their shoes at the airport, and small children to participate in “active shooter drills:”

We can argue all day over whether masking on airplanes was really helping at this stage of the pandemic. Medical experts admitted that, once the hyper-infectious Omicron became the dominant variant of COVID, cloth masks were perhaps better than nothing, but not by much. And of course, when the experts tell us that “masks work,” they mean “when worn properly and consistently.” Anyone who has been on an airplane this year, however, knows that the mandate as a practical matter collapsed long ago. Masks under noses, masks around chins, masks on, masks off. Would you like another drink? Indeed I would, thank you, and I’ll just put my mask here by the side of my tray while I eat for another hour and chat with my unmasked seatmate. . .

The playacting over masks on airplanes and trains is effectively over. Perhaps governments at all levels should take this opportunity to get ahead of other judges who might be tempted to ditch rules they don’t like.

Airport security is the low-hanging fruit. A terrorist tried to use a bomb in a sneaker more than 20 years ago, and we are still taking off our shoes. Some of this chaos is our own fault; Americans even now simply cannot get the hang of not trying to walk through security with bottles full of liquids, which are restricted due to hypothetical concerns about explosives. (A fair number of Americans are also idiots who try to walk through airports carrying loaded weapons.) Nonetheless, we are examining old people and children in small airports as if they are Mohamed Atta trying to get through Reagan National. . .

Likewise, it’s time to stop scaring the daylights out of children with shooter drills. Not only is the chance of being involved in a shooting tiny; you can teach children how to hide or evacuate a building by holding routine fire drills without terrifying them about armed attackers. . .

Government mandates are necessary and serve an important purpose, but they should be used sparingly. Good public policy is simple, easy to understand, and easy to follow. “You must wear a mask on an airplane but not in a sports arena, and you must keep that mask on unless you brought a bag of candy or a large coffee, and the mask can be anything you want it to be as long as it looks like it’s hanging somewhere near your face” is not a good policy. It’s an attempt to calm the nerves of people whose tolerance for risk—often for perfectly valid reasons—is lower than that of others.

Nichols acknowledges that this week’s ruling invalidating the mask mandate, issued by a 12-year-old Trump-appointed federal judge who saw a pretend trial on TV one time, is a travesty for various reasons, and ought to be appealed for those reasons, not because the mandate itself represents good public policy at this point.

Relatedly, I was looking at the latest CDC stats for relative mortality risk from COVID, which are from the end of February, and they reveal that the yearly mortality risk from the disease for the average vaccinated and boosted person is one in 10,000, which is considerably lower than the average person’s risk of dying in a car crash this year.

Now obviously that stat comes with a lot of caveats. Averages don’t represent the risk to especially vulnerable subgroups. A tiny percentage of people can’t be vaccinated. We still don’t have a good understanding of the really long term health effects of COVID, especially long COVID, to the extent the latter syndrome is a discrete condition (also not well understood at this time).

But Nichols’ basic point — that at this point mask mandates in general are probably pointless — is probably correct. The point can be generalized:

Experts, including doctors, can tell us only about numbers and probabilities. They cannot tell us what level of collective risk we should be willing to assume. Only we can make that decision, and we do, every day. We set speed limits that we know would save more people if they were lower; we allow products to be sold that we know will shorten the lives of some of the people who use them. Democratic societies routinely make such trade-offs. If the American public is willing to accept such risks, experts cannot countermand those decisions except by demonstrating that government action is immediately necessary as a response to an emergency that cannot be handled any other way. Our responsibility as citizens, however, is to make informed choices—and to always remember that a certain amount of risk and danger is the price of living in a free and open society.

The problem with this generalization is that, to an increasing extent, we don’t live in a free and open society: we live in one in which making informed choices becomes more difficult all the time, because one of the two political parties is dedicated to spreading noxious anti-scientific propaganda on countless issues, in order to advance its political fortunes.

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