By Terri Gerstein
Consider the quiet car. Some Amtrak trains have a designated car for people who want a hushed environment in which to work, read, or sleep. Passengers who want quiet choose the quiet car. People who don’t want quiet sit elsewhere. In short: people want different options for travel, and Amtrak threads the needle, accommodating varying needs.
Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this same approach could be taken in relation to masking. While the science is clear that universal masking is the best way to reduce the virus’ spread, highly vocal opponents have made masks a thorny subject for political leaders. Mask mandates are gone, at least for now. As such, Amtrak, airlines, public transit, and other transportation companies should provide must-mask options for passengers who need or want them.
Under this approach, those who don’t want to mask wouldn’t have to. Those who want all-masked environments — including many currently unable to travel safely — could have that choice.
Several months ago, I asked Amtrak’s CEO for just this. I created a Change.org petition, which has now received nearly 27,000 signatures, asking Amtrak to designate a must-mask car on its trains. The petition explains that our status quo leaves many immunocompromised and disabled people unable to access key services without risking their health, preventing them from fully participating in everyday life. In October, I wrote directly to Amtrak’s CEO, as well as other high level Amtrak officials, but have yet to receive a response.
(I worked in government for years, so I know large institutions receive voluminous correspondence from members of the public, sometimes with wacky ideas. I imagine my email may have been placed in that pile. If you support must-mask options on Amtrak, please sign the petition, or write to Amtrak directly, either individually or on behalf of any organization for which you’re authorized to speak).
To be clear: my area of expertise is workplace law, so these efforts are out of my usual wheelhouse. I wrote the Change.org petition, as well as this blog post, in my free time, because I’m concerned about the full-scale jettisoning of protections needed to keep medically vulnerable people safe.
Universal masking has been shown to be far more effective than optional individual masking. A recent study compared COVID-19 spread in Boston-area school districts that dropped mask mandates earlier this year (the majority), with the two much less-resourced school districts that maintained mandates. Ending universal masking — and having optional masking only — led to significant, avoidable COVID-19 spread: an additional 44.9 cases per 1,000 students and staff, translating to approximately 17,500 missed school days for students and 6,500 missed school days for staff during the 15-week period.
In light of the growing body of research, combined with the looming tripledemic (COVID-19, flu, and RSV), various public health professionals are already calling for reinstating mask mandates, a step which clearly would do the most to protect public health. And the Supreme Court in October let stand a federal appellate court ruling that the Transportation Security Administration has the authority to mandate masks. But as we currently have no travel mask mandate in place, transportation companies should provide everyone the ability to travel safely.
Amtrak and others may hesitate to offer must-mask options for travel because of concerns about blowback by opponents. But how does it harm anti-maskers if their own faces are bare but other passengers have a mask-required option? Most people won’t care, and the outliers who’d still cause a scene shouldn’t dictate policy for everyone.
In fact, a solid majority of people actually support requiring masks in certain transportation settings. An Economist/YouGov poll as recent as November 2022 revealed that 57% of people surveyed support a mask mandate on airplanes and in airports, compared with only 33% opposed (of those, an even smaller 21-22% were “strongly opposed”).
Trains and subways seem like the easiest place to start: they can designate certain cars as “must-mask” locations, without much logistical challenge. But airlines should do this as well. Earlier this year, I wrote an op-ed urging my hometown airline JetBlue to create some must-mask flight options. In the piece, I noted the ample number of flights between, for example, the New York and Miami metro areas. Currently there are 40 non-stop southbound JetBlue flights connecting these two regions on a random date in mid-December. How hard would it be to designate one, or two, or five, of them mask-required? Airlines are unimaginably complex logistical operations — they seem to charge a different price for every seat on a plane — so it seems well within their operational capacity to designate certain flights on each route as “must-mask” flights. This would likely be a competitive advantage, attracting passengers who prefer to fly with masks as well as some passengers who’ve been avoiding air travel altogether.
To be sure, putting this proposal into practice would not be challenge-free. Transportation workers, like those in many other sectors, have been subject to terrible aggression and abuse when enforcing prior mask mandates. They would likely have valid workplace safety concerns about their potential role in implementation of must-mask options.
Accordingly, a core aspect of operationalizing this idea would involve engaging extensively with the unions representing transportation workers. These workers are on the front lines and their input will be a key aspect of making this concept work. Companies could start with a pilot on limited routes, and staff those routes with workers supportive of the effort who have chosen to be part of the initiative. A month-long pilot of a must-mask car on Amtrak’s Boston-to-Washington, D.C. Northeast Corridor could be a good place to start; passengers there are already familiar with the quiet car concept.
This approach — creating must-mask options — is, of course, potentially applicable far beyond transportation. Some New York City theaters offer mask-required performances for specific times; the Frye Art Museum in Seattle is offering mask-required hours, although far too few. Many museums and businesses are doing much more, and requiring masks, as documented in a guide by Mandate Masks NY. More theaters (including movie theaters) and museums could follow their lead. And in the pandemic’s early days, some grocery stores, libraries, pharmacies, and more offered special hours for elderly or medically vulnerable patrons; they could readily designate special must-mask hours of operation as well.
Currently, too many people are excluded from participating fully in everyday life. Given that we don’t have masking requirements, transportation and other companies should create must-mask options, to enable safer access for everyone.
Terri Gerstein is the Director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at the Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program, and also a Senior Fellow at the Economic Policy Institute.