Wearing masks to protect against coronavirus has become such a serious problem in the United States that airlines have found it difficult to impose this practice on provocative travelers in the enclosed environment of an airplane.
AFP photographer Johannes Eisele experienced the problem first-hand.
He recently boarded an American Airlines flight from New York’s LaGuardia Airport – then a coronavirus hotspot – to Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina. He had a middle seat, wedged between two other passengers – only one of whom was wearing a mask.
As Eisele said, “I asked him if he had a mask. He replied, “Yes, I have it. And I asked her, “Can you wear it, please?” »»
“He said that he felt more comfortable without the mask and that he would not wear it. “
When Eisele said to the man, “I feel more comfortable if you wear it,” her caregiver replied, “Keep your fear to yourself. “
The flight was complete, so Eisele was unable to change seats.
The scene occurred earlier this month, shortly before U.S. airlines imposed rules on masks – usually only exempting passengers with medical or religious excuses, or very young children – to slow down the spread of COVID-19.
At the time of boarding, say officials of American Airlines and United Airlines, the rule is clear: no passenger can board a flight without wearing a mask.
The problem occurs after takeoff. These airlines will generally allow, if necessary to avoid confrontation, to remove the masks during the flight. They are allowed to do this too, of course, while eating or drinking.
If a passenger’s refusal to wear a face cover is causing trouble, a spokesperson for United told AFP, “We have advised our flight attendants to use their de-escalation skills.”
He added, “They have the ability to reinstall customers on the plane,” although this does not work on a full flight.
“Our employees should not control the personal behavior of customers,” said a spokesperson for the Southwest. The airline provides masks at airports and on planes, but will not “deny boarding only if a customer is not wearing a mask.”
– “Do not climb” –
An internal notice from American Airlines to its flight attendants explains how they are expected to handle the mask issues.
If a passenger refuses to wear a mask for reasons other than medical or religious, it says “Please encourage them to comply, but do not climb more.”
Likewise, if a client is frustrated because a seatmate is not wearing a face covering, “please use situational awareness to defuse the situation.” “
“During the pandemic, we must partly rely on common sense and responsible actions” of travelers, said the spokesman for the Southwest.
In short, the airlines seem to have chosen the course of conciliation rather than confrontation with insistent and sometimes angry travelers – even this means a greater risk to the health of other people seated nearby.
The wearing of masks has been to some extent politicized by President Donald Trump, who refused to wear one, in the face of virtually unanimous medical advice and even after some White House staff contracted the coronavirus.
Scientists say the risk of infection is close to its highest when people spend long periods in confined spaces – such as planes.
Not wearing a mask on an airplane “is extremely irresponsible,” said Jonathan Metzl, professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.
“I think if someone is not wearing a mask on an airplane, they should be arrested. “
– Mask as a political symbol –
Deciding not to wear a mask in your own car is one thing, said Metzl, but refusing to wear it on public transportation is another matter.
“I think President Trump and the Republicans have successfully coded a mask as a political symbol,” he added.
“They basically rally their base by suggesting that wearing a mask is a sign of submission, or that people who wear masks are weak. “
Beth Redbird, professor of sociology at Northwestern University, studied the behavior of Americans during the pandemic.
“Republicans who are skeptical of Donald Trump support social distancing”, including wearing masks, she said, while “independents who support Donald Trump are skeptical of social distancing “.
The House Transport Committee chairman Peter DeFazio on Thursday urged airlines to “leave at least one seat width between passengers.”
In a letter to a group representing the major airlines, he said they could “adjust fares as necessary” to accommodate empty planes.
© 2020 AFP