Welcome to Galaxy Brain—a newsletter from Charlie Warzel about technology, media, culture, and big ideas. You can read what this is all about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. This is a free edition of the newsletter, but you can subscribe to The Atlantic to get access to all posts. Past editions I’m proud of include: A 10-Year-Old Nuclear-Blast Simulator Is Popular Again, The Bad Ideas Our Brains Can’t Shake, How to Spend 432,870 Minutes on Spotify in a Year, and Confessions of an Information Hoarder.
Late Monday night, following a U.S. district court ruling, the White House announced that TSA would no longer enforce the federal mask mandate inside airports and on flights. The news spread quickly. Within an hour, videos and anecdotes emerged online of giddy in-flight announcements from flight attendants delivering the news that masks were now optional. In some cases, passengers cheered. In one viral clip, a flight attendant is seen walking down the aisle holding a trash bag and singing, “throw out your masks!” It was an uncanny, not all that surprising, and, for many, deflating moment. In other words: an extremely 2022 moment.
The mask-mandate repeal has been divisive (on Wednesday, the CDC asked the Justice Department to appeal the ruling that lifted the travel mask mandate). The pandemic is not over—as of this writing there are 14,790 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States. The coronavirus continues to evolve. Long COVID (a subject we're still learning about) continues to be a very real scourge for many suffering Americans. And portions of America’s disabled and immunocompromised populations, while much better protected in the vaccine era, are still vulnerable to the disease. To those who recognize and prioritize these concerns, the mandate repeal is yet another dispiriting sign of a country that feels like it has given up completely on pandemic mitigation, creating an environment where risk calculus and assumption are strictly personal choices—a dereliction of government duty that leaves a country’s most vulnerable out to sea.
To those inclined to cheer on the repeal (note: a recent AP-NORC poll shows this group is substantially in the minority and most people are in favor of masks for travelers) and bare their faces to an airplane cabin, the news was greeted as rational. Yes, there’s the selfish, reprehensible crowd that has recklessly protested masks since the beginning, but there’s also a group of vaccinated passengers who’ve complied with the mandate until now and feel it no longer makes sense. This crowd is largely framed as being “done with COVID,” and while that’s partially true, many of these people also see the repeal as reflecting the reality that it doesn’t make sense to mask in one place if masks are not required in most others. Or they claim to believe that those who want to mask can do so. (For what it’s worth, I believe that, unlike restaurants or sports venues, public transit serves a different, more crucial function, and that rules, like mask wearing, that make transportation safer for a larger swath of people are crucially important so as to not exclude anyone from essential services.)
As expected, both of these camps clashed in the usual online and media spaces. The online fight over the repeal has its own cringey nomenclature—Covidians versus Coviditiots. Covidians are uncharitably framed as not just overly cautious but also as people who seem to enjoy COVID restrictions. They’re painted as miserable scolds, trapping the rest of America in an isolated, masked future. The Covidiots can occupy a broad category that includes everyone from the reckless anti-vaxxers to those who now dine indoors or work in offices without masks. They are portrayed as not just selfish, but, in extreme cases, as pro-virus .
Flight attendants have played an outsize role in this discourse. Many of the videos showing the mask repeal feature flight attendants responding excitedly to the news. Online, they’ve become avatars for different peoples’ revelry or concerns over the decision. Some frustrated with the repeal are using instances of flight attendants celebrating as examples of reckless behavior and corporate policies, while people in favor of the repeal are using their excited reactions to show that mask mandates are oppressive and unnecessary.
Here's my anecdotal experience. About seven hours after the announcement, I boarded a Delta flight in Cleveland and a second one a few hours later in Minneapolis. Roughly 15 percent of passengers on each flight (by my estimation) wore masks. On both flights, the airline staff got on the PA system to announce the rule change, and both times, their announcement was lighthearted. “We are thrilled to finally see all your smiling faces again,” one of the flight attendants said. Each time there was a smattering of applause, and a reminder that those who wish to should leave their masks on. There wasn't an intense anti-mask reaction from passengers.
Perhaps because the announcements on my flights were measured, I did not read them as an act of culture warring from the airline staff. The enthusiasm, as I saw it, felt logistical—they seemed thrilled to no longer have to enforce mask wearing in the cabin, as they’ve been doing for almost two years. As I deplaned, a flight attendant confirmed my hunch, telling me that it was a great relief to no longer have to police noncompliant and even hostile passengers at 30,000 feet.
Anecdotally, this is understandable. I’ve taken probably 15 flights in the COVID era, and on each one I’ve watched flight attendants cheerfully try to coax passengers to “please remember to pull the mask up so it covers your nose as well as your mouth.” I’ve heard the testy PA announcements noting that “federal law requires you wear your mask when you’re not eating and drinking, and yes, that means all of you.” I’ve also seen the grim statistics on “air rage” events—according to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were nearly 6,000 reports of unruly passengers on flights in 2021. Seventy-two percent of those were related to mask disputes. Viewed through a workplace lens, the mask mandate enforcement role has been tough on airline staff. Late last month, a Dallas-based union of Southwest Airlines flight attendants argued that “serving onboard during these contentious times and enforcing mask compliance is one of the most difficult jobs we have ever faced.”
Tellingly, this labor element is mostly excluded from the online conversation around the mask-mandate repeal. Flight attendants’ general exhaustion doesn’t fit as tidily into the culture-war frame of Covidiots versus Covidians. Are there members of airline staffs who disdain masking and think COVID is a joke? Probably, yes. Are there others who are anxious about a repeal and would like to see masking continue? Probably, yes. Are there others who are unsure of how to respond—who are frustrated with the fact that COVID precautions are now left up to individuals but also personally relieved that it is not their job to act as authority figures? Probably, definitely, also yes! Is this whole situation a good example of the way that mask non-compliers have made life miserable for people just trying to do their jobs? Undoubtedly, yes.
I bring this up because it feels as though we’ve entered yet another profoundly weird and hard moment of the pandemic. It is a period of dispiriting societal failures and regressions alongside bits of good news, creating a general sense of bizarre, hollow half-victories and setbacks. COVID has evolved and will continue to, but the Omicron variant seems to be both more contagious and generally less severe than previous variants for many vaccinated and boosted people without preexisting conditions. We have a suite of amazing, life-changing vaccines and drugs that protect most who take them, to varying but very important degrees. But we’ve also let fatigue, selfishness, and politics dictate our public response to this next phase of COVID, shifting almost all the burden of protection onto individuals. This type of risk calculus only serves to pit people against each other and alienate those at high risk from the rest of society. As has been the case since the early days of the pandemic, certain economic incentives have overridden parts of scientific reality. In its initial Monday press release about the mask mandate, Delta wrote that it was “relieved to see the U.S. mask mandate lift to facilitate global travel” and falsely claimed that “COVID-19 has transitioned to an ordinary seasonal virus.” The next day the company amended the statement, calling COVID-19 “a more manageable respiratory virus—with better treatments, vaccines and other scientific measures to prevent serious illness.”
As somebody with immunocompromised family members who has spent the last two years fumbling through scientific preprint studies and learning more than I’d ever imagined I would about airborne disease transmission, the last few months have felt so strange. I feel saddened and outraged on behalf of those who are high risk and feel truly left behind. I worry that even good-natured people have shrugged away the concerns of the vulnerable because they’ve reached their own breaking points. I’m also so heartened by generally lower levels of hospitalization, and personally overjoyed by my own ability to gather with others again. I have a newfound appreciation for so many moments in my daily life that I once took for granted, and I recognize the positive effects of in-person socializing on my own mental health and that of those around me. I’m also terrified that trust in public health initiatives seems to have eroded so intensely during the pandemic, and that we are now worse off and less resilient to confront not just our current challenges but also any that face us down the road. I am hopeful that pandemic-related news will continue to get better, and yet reasonably worried that we’ve declared victory too soon and could usher in subsequent, regressive waves. Which is all to say that I don’t really know how to feel at any given moment.
There’s an uncanny “George W. Bush on the aircraft carrier in front of a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner” vibe at play for me when I watch videos of airplane cabins applauding and celebrating the mandate repeal. Cards on the table, I’ll be keeping my mask on during flights, partly for selfish reasons (I like not getting both COVID and colds when I travel!), and partly because I think it’s the right thing to do at this particular stage of the pandemic. My personal feelings about masking aside, watching the online vitriol toward flight attendants depressed me for a separate reason. As a result of shameless politicization and poor communication, both about political considerations and about scientific guidelines, we’ve shifted almost all of the burden of dealing with a pandemic from institutions to individuals. This also means that so much of people’s (very legitimate) anger and frustration is then misplaced and directed toward individuals—most of whom aren’t monsters or ideologues, but just people who are trying to do their jobs and muddle through an ever-changing landscape of risk.
The culture wars over the mask mandate feel like another example of the way that the pandemic—the crushing excess of suffering and the many, glaring institutional failures—has shaped some of us into the worst, most uncharitable versions of ourselves. We’re (justifiably) more mad, tired, and distrustful than we were when this started. We continue to—rightly at times, and wrongly at others—direct ire at individuals instead of addressing the larger collective issues. And sometimes we blame the flight attendants instead of focusing on the politicians, propagandists, and policymakers, because it’s easy and because it gives us a feeling of agency in a situation where we usually have very little. It’s 2022—25 months in. We muddle on, feeling that, even if particular things are getting better, the whole is getting progressively worse.