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Flying with kids just got more complicated as travel mask mandate is lifted

Parents express worry about flying with children under 5 after a federal judge struck down transportation mask mandate.

Americans have mixed emotions this week, after a federal judge struck down a transportation mask mandate that has been in place for more than two years. The now-defunct mandate impacts planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation. As people prepare for a busy travel season throughout the spring and summer, the new rules for flying have parents of the youngest and most vulnerable kids wondering what happens next.

Mask rules on planes were initially enforced by airlines beginning in 2020 and became a federal mandate after President Biden took office in 2021. On Monday, April 18, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle ruled that the mandate, ordered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “violates the procedures required for agency rulemaking” and can no longer be enforced.

Shortly after the ruling, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Federal Transit Administration confirmed the end of mask enforcement on public transportation. On some planes, pilots even made mid-flight announcements inviting passengers to shed their masks immediately.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking. This is the most important announcement I’ve ever made. The federal mask mandate is over. Take off your mask if you choose,” one Alaska Airlines pilot reportedly said.

Parents had complex reactions to the news, particularly if they have children under 5. Masks are not recommended for kids under 2, and vaccines for kids under 5 still aren’t available, meaning the youngest fliers may be vulnerable to COVID transmission if the adults around them in public are unmasked. One parent writes on Twitter that she booked a flight with her two young children while the mandate was still in place. As excited passengers took off their masks in the middle of their flight yesterday, she worried about the potential exposure risks for her kids.

“Here we are, trapped in the sky with our 8 month old unmasked baby (you can’t actually mask a baby that young) under the supposition that everyone who can be masked would be masked,” she writes. “The flight 325 crew has taken our choices away from us. Very, very angry about this.”

Others have expressed regret about booking travel for later this year or are reconsidering their summer plans entirely after the judge’s decision.

“My dad with a lung condition literally just got off a plane to visit us. My family with two kids under 5 were planning on joining me for summer conferences,” one parent writes. “Now no kids vaccines and no masks?! This is a rough day for parents of [kids under] 5. And this is making it less safe for all of us.”

“I got plane [tickets] for my family (two kids under 5) for a summer trip months ago, assuming they would be vaccinated,” another parent adds. “Trip is inching closer, toddler cannot mask and no vaccination in sight for them. Already had COVID once, don’t want it again for any of us.”

As one parent explains, the judge’s decision on masks feels alienating for a lot of parents, despite other people’s joy in finally being able to travel unmasked. “I know some cheered today’s mask rule change, but remember the loudest aren’t the only [ones],” she writes. “Getting lots of messages from families with kids too young to be vaxxed who are now rethinking flying. It’s been a long two years but not everyone marked today with celebration.”

Though some expressed disappointment, others say parents shouldn’t rely on the CDC to make or enforce safety decisions for their family. Rather, they should make other travel plans if they’re worried about their kids being infected.

“People, you don’t need the CDC to tell you what you should or should not do when it comes to mask. Use your own good judgements,” they write. “Don’t fly if you have kids under 5, plan a road trip and drive instead. Do not travel if you are unable to drive. Save a life.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki calls the mandate strike down “unfortunate” and stresses that the CDC still recommends wearing masks on public transit; however, the Biden administration has indicated they have no plans to challenge the ruling.

The U.S. may be at the start of a new COVID wave, though experts are still trying to determine what to expect. Currently, COVID cases are rising, with an average of more than 39,000 new confirmed cases per day. Additionally, The New York Times reports that case volume may be even higher since at-home COVID tests are not included in the official tally.

Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are in the process of creating a vaccine for kids under 5, but it’s not yet known when those shots might be authorized for use. With COVID precautions disappearing and no definite timeline for vaccines, it’s clear that no matter what the virus does, parents are looking at yet another season full of complicated decisions to make for their kids.

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