Opinion: Americans hit the road – masks or no masks

Some passengers wear masks, others don't at Hartsfield-Jackson on April 19, 2022, after a federal judge reversed the federal mask mandate. John Spink / AJC

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Some passengers wear masks, others don't at Hartsfield-Jackson on April 19, 2022, after a federal judge reversed the federal mask mandate. John Spink / AJC

There were loud celebrations this week from airline passengers as a federal judge in Florida struck down a Coronavirus mask mandate for those traveling on airlines, buses, trains, and public transit.

“It’s so weird seeing faces,” I heard one flight attendant say, as many travelers instantly ignored posters declaring the need to wear a mask in the airport.

The decision was loudly trumpeted by Republicans in Congress.

“This ruling is a victory for freedom and a reality check for Democrats who are obsessed with controlling what Americans can and can’t do,” said U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-West Point.

“You don’t have to wear masks on trains or airplanes unless you’re flying with Biden on Air Force One,” added U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Greensboro.

While the White House still supports a mask requirement for airline travelers, most Democrats in Congress said nothing about mask policies this week, making it crystal clear that they see little to no political benefit in a public fight to keep those rules in place.

But while the fight over masks is emblematic of a broader feeling among Americans who have tired of Coronavirus restrictions and precautions, this week’s federal court ruling didn’t suddenly create a mad rush to book an airline flight just because the mask mandate was gone.

Numbers from the Transportation Security Administration show airport security checks have been growing steadily this year, often going over 2 million per day — nearing 2019 pre-Coronavirus travel levels — even with the mask requirement in place.

And judging from the jammed national parks that I visited around Easter, mask rules and very high gas prices (I paid $4.81 a gallon at one stop) certainly weren’t keeping many Americans at home in the first place.

Figures from the National Park Service show visits to the Grand Canyon National Park are up nearly 14% so far in 2022 compared to 2021. In Wyoming, Yellowstone visits are up 12%. In California, Yosemite has seen a spike of 23% over last year.

The same thing is happening in Georgia, with a big increase in visitors at everything from the Jimmy Carter National Historic Park in Plains (up 121%) to the Fort Frederica National Monument on St. Simons Island (up 240%).

It’s a reminder of the odd political and economic dynamic facing President Biden this midterm election year.

The economy is strong and growing. Unemployment is very low. But high inflation is a big concern for consumers.

It’s easy to wear a mask — even if you don’t like it. It’s not as easy to find extra money in your pocket to deal with inflation.

Jamie Dupree has covered national politics and the Congress from Washington, D.C. since the Reagan administration. His column appears weekly in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For more, check out his Capitol Hill newsletter at http://jamiedupree.substack.com