TRavelers may have to hold on to their face masks for a while longer. As the daily number of reported Covid-19 cases rises again in the United States, fueled by the highly transmissible subvariant omicron BA.2, at least one major US city is bringing back its mask mandate.
The percentage of Americans who say they always wear a mask in public has dropped to just 23%, the lowest level since April 2020, according to tracking data from the University of Washington in Seattle. Notably, vaccinated Americans with more than twice as likely (70%) as unvaccinated Americans (32%) to report regularly wearing a mask in public places, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
At the same time, testing has also dropped significantly, making it more difficult for officials to get a handle on the actual number of daily infections. According to the latest estimate from the University of Washington, the real number of daily infections is likely to be nine times higher than those reported. That huge gap totals around 282,531 Covid cases unreported today.
Also factoring into the mix is that coast-to-coast, most cities and states have scrapped indoor mask regulations, leaving the choice of whether or not to wear a mask up to the individual.
In Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser allowed indoor vaccination and masking mandates to expire in late February, and the city’s health department stopped reporting daily Covid case counts in March. Within weeks, outbreaks in the nation’s capital resulted in some very high-profile Covid-positive cases among cabinet secretaries and members of Congress, as well as Mayor Muriel Bowser herself. And last week, two prominent DC-area universities — Georgetown and Johns Hopkins — passed the mandatory masking and Testing requirements reinstated due to an increase in positive cases among students.
A surge of new infections in New York City has also impacted Broadway theaters, where mask and vaccination guidelines remain in effect until at least April 30. Some performances of ‘Plaza Suite’ and ‘Macbeth’ have been canceled after the cast tested positive for Covid-19.
Rising Covid infections prompted Philadelphia officials to reinstate their mask mandate today. Just five weeks ago, the City of Brotherly Love dropped its indoor mask requirement. But as Covid-19 cases ticked upwards, the city’s health department has decided to put the brakes back on.
“This looks like we could be at the start of a new Covid wave, as Europe has just seen,” said Dr. City Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole at a news conference. “I suspect this wave will be smaller than the one we saw in January. But if we wait to find out and put our masks back on, we’ve missed our chance to stop the wave.”
dr Bettigole said the city has reached the threshold to trigger a return to mandatory mask-wearing indoors. Today Philadelphia switched from Level 1: All Clear to Level 2: Mask Precautions. The city meets two out of three criteria as per city instructions required to trigger the mask mandate.
The first criterion is that the average daily new Covid-19 cases are above 100. The number of daily new cases rose significantly from 94 per day last week to 142 this week. Second, cases have increased by more than 50% in the past 10 days. The third criterion, the only one not met, is that the number of hospitalizations related to Covid does not exceed 100. The city is currently reporting 46 hospital cases.
Meanwhile, the federal mask requirement for air travel and public transport, which has been in force since February 2021, expires in a week from today, April 18th Today’s show This morning, White House Covid-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha that maintaining the mandate is “absolutely on the table”.
The mandate has been a polarizing issue, with 21 states suing the federal government to end it. Last month, the CEOs of the seven US airlines — Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, United and Southwest — wrote to President Biden asking him to end the mask mandate.
However, polls suggest that a majority of Americans support keeping the requirement. Six in 10 Americans (60%) support extending the mask mandate, according to a Harris Poll Covid-19 tracking poll conducted in early April. Nearly a third of Americans (32%) say they “strongly support” expanding the mask requirement for travel, compared to 19% who “strongly disagree.”
Last month, a Morning Consult poll also found that 60% of US adults think travel and hospitality businesses should require their customers to wear masks — though that was down from 71% in January, when the Omicron surge peaked. In particular, those planning to travel within the next three months are more likely to support keeping face mask mandates.
“Throughout the pandemic, we have wanted to make decisions based on evidence and science, and I expect we will do so again this week,” Jha said, stressing that the final decision will rest with the Centers for Control and Disease Prevention (CDC).