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Mask ruling underscores deep split in attitudes

Wearing masks during the pandemic has long been a divisive issue in the United States. And now that a federal judge has tossed out the mask mandate for planes and public transportation, rules in some places have been thrown into chaos. Many were lifted, and a few reimposed.

But even as the changes cause some confusion, Americans’ attitudes toward the restrictions have wavered little in recent months and, in fact, are still impassioned. Some who are already in the habit of masking in public and see COVID-19 cases rising again in parts of the country are angry at losing the protection on which they have relied. Others are elated by the release from those irritating bands behind their ears.

“Ecstatic” was the way Patrick McDonnell, a 30-year-old architect from the New York City borough of Brooklyn, described his feelings, adding, “Enough is enough.” McDonnell said he found wearing a mask “annoying” and “uncomfortable” and has already stopped masking on the New York City subway, even though face coverings are still required on mass transit in the city.

“Adults should be able to make their own decisions regarding the risks they’re willing to take,” McDonnell said. As for masking for the sake of fellow riders who are older or in poor health, he said that vaccines and treatments are now available for COVID-19, and he should no longer have to alter his behavior to accommodate others.

“I want to get back to living my life,” he said. “Do I have to factor in everyone in the world around me when I make a decision?”

McDonnell was one of thousands who responded to a New York Times callout asking how readers felt about the court decision lifting the mandate, if they would continue to mask while on planes, buses and trains and if they were reconsidering travel plans. The respondents are not representative of the U.S. population.

Public opinion surveys before the court ruling found mixed views. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey of 1,243 adults conducted in March reported that 8 in 10 adults said they had worn a mask indoors recently, but only 6 in 10 people wanted mask-wearing in some public spaces to continue to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and to prevent another surge. But the poll also found that respondents were evenly split over whether to extend the mask mandate for public transportation or let it expire. People of color, lower-income individuals and those with chronic health problems were more likely to favor masking policies, as were Democrats.

Another survey of 1,085 adults in mid-April by The Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 56% of respondents favored requiring masks on public transportation, while about one-fourth opposed them and one-fifth had no opinion either way.

The U.S. government is appealing the decision that said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not have the authority to impose the mask mandate for transportation, which was set to expire in early May.

Since Monday’s ruling, some cities have decided to keep their mask mandates for public transit in place, although the rules do not appear to be enforced much. Most states or cities that had imposed some type of mask restrictions for indoor gatherings lifted them awhile ago. And some Southern and Western states had forbidden any type of masking rule, so public transportation — via airlines, trains, subways or buses — remained one of the last holdouts beyond hospitals and health care sites.

Resistance to masks had been building over time, even in tight quarters such as airplanes and as cases of omicron subvariants began rising around the country a month or so ago. Although hospitalizations and deaths have not risen in tandem — those indicators previously started increasing several weeks after cases did — the uptick worried some of the readers who responded to the Times. They called the judge’s decision “premature,” “political,” “unwise and irresponsible,” even “unconscionable.”

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” several wrote in warning. Parents of young children expressed particular concern, given that those younger than 5 still are not eligible for a vaccine and one might not be available before summer.

Ashley Eckstat, 35, a mother of three from Greensboro, North Carolina, said she had hoped that the mandate would remain in place until COVID-19 shots were authorized for the youngest children.

“I just want to yell: The promise of returning to normal was dependent on vaccinations, and we still have lot of vulnerable children,” Eckstat said. “We’re only as protected as our least protected family member.”

Others who had boarded planes or made travel plans with the understanding that there was a mask mandate said they were outraged when the rules changed midflight.

But many travelers said masks were a nuisance and that it is “time to move on.” They questioned the effectiveness of masks. Now that vaccines were available and some treatments for COVID-19 had been developed, they said, the virus did not pose a big risk, and there were other risks in life.

“There are risks to driving a car, and to walking down the street,” said Kelly Johnson, 62, an education consultant from southeastern Virginia who travels by plane for work. She said she would abide by any masking rules that are in place but that, at this point, “Risks are low enough with COVID-19 that people should have the option of wearing a mask or not.”

A sense of sadness and disappointment permeated many responses as Americans lamented the fact that the nation is so deeply polarized and ideologically divided that a consensus could not be reached for the greater good.

“A true sense of community responsibility no longer exists in this country,” said the Rev. Chip Lee, 74, an Episcopal priest in Garrett County, Maryland. “Some of the argument comes down to, ‘Nobody’s going to tell me what to do with my body.’ But we don’t all live in our own cocoons.”

Still, some individuals who lost loved ones to COVID-19 were ready to cast off their masks.

Jackie Wammock, 60, of Aiken, South Carolina, lost her mother to the virus last year, but she had COVID-19 herself and has recovered. “My fear of illness is not that high,” she said, adding that she wouldn’t wear a mask unless she had symptoms suggesting illness. In that case, she said, “There’s a responsibility to others.”

Some people said they would keep their masks on and continue to travel. Others said they would be canceling plans to attend graduations and other family events. Several said they would be driving instead of flying this summer if they could. Emerald North, a 71-year-old painter and sculptor from Cochiti Lake, New Mexico, said she would be willing to drive long distances — up to 1,000 miles — to avoid flying.

Some who can afford to do so said they would upgrade to first class or business class to ensure better social distancing on planes and trains.

Others are altering their plans. Ellen Tabor, a doctor in New York City who works at a nonprofit, dropped plans for a trip to Italy in order to minimize her risk of exposure. She will be vacationing in Columbia County, New York, instead.

“Masks are one small burden,” Tabor said. “The virus is a big one.”

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