Parents assess travel plans as airline mask mandate lifts. Experts weigh in on risks.

·7-min read
A crowded waiting area at Miami International Airport on April 22 after a  federal judge struck down the COVID mask mandate.
Travelers wait at Miami International Airport on April 22 after a federal judge struck down the COVID mask mandate on transport. (Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images)

Many people across the country were caught off guard last week when a federal judge struck down the nationwide mask mandate for travelers two weeks before it was set to expire. As a result, masks are no longer required on airplanes, trains, buses and in public transportation hubs unless cities require them.

While plenty of people celebrated the end of the mask mandate, others have concerns about how it will affect their safety — and the health of their families. Many are parents of children who are still too young to be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. (Currently, the Food and Drug Administration has only authorized the shot for children ages 5 and up.) Parents of children under the age of 2, who are too young to wear face masks, have also expressed concerns. And, for those who finally decided to take their first trips since the pandemic began, the lifting of the mask mandate has thrown a wrench in their plans.

One of them is North Carolina mom Kaila Maguire who has an almost-2-year-old. "My son was born in the super-early days of the pandemic — May 2020 — and consequently hasn't been on a plane yet," she tells Yahoo Life. "While I never would have thought that we would be nearing his second birthday without a single flight under his belt, it's just been our reality as we do not feel safe traveling with, and therefore exposing, our unvaccinated child."

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Maguire says she and her family are moving across the country within a few months and had originally planned for her husband to drive their car to their destination while she and her son took a plane. That's now changed. "It's honestly so exhausting thinking that just when I had rationalized air travel for my son, just when we had begun to feel semicomfortable with the idea since everyone else would be masked, the 'rules' have changed," she says. "I'm so burned out and always feel devastated, underneath the surface, about the fact that the only parenting I’ve ever known is pandemic parenting. This news means us parents of children under the age of 5 now have to restrategize if we want to even entertain the idea of air travel, or even long distance traveling of any kind, really. I'm so frustrated and frankly pissed off."

Maguire says she has seen videos of people on planes "gleefully rip masks off their faces without a care in the world," which has caused her to "rethink" her original plans to fly. "We will now potentially plan to drive cross-country together, which will not only take longer but will ultimately cost more money — not to mention the very last dregs of our sanity," she says.

San Diego mom Jackie K. (who asked that her last name be withheld for privacy purposes) is mom to a 10-month-old. She tells Yahoo Life that she and her family were planning to travel to the East Coast to see her son's grandparents in the summer but they're now reconsidering their plans. "We were hoping, with masks and potentially a vaccine for kids under 5, we would be safe," she says. "Now we are rethinking that. If our son were to get sick, he's not even old enough for most of the available treatments."

"Our only option to safely see family right now would be to drive," Jackie continues. "We do have an RV, but driving from East Coast to West Coast and back with a 1-year-old is not ideal. We aren't sure we will be making these trips at all now. I know several people who spent all day on the phone trying to get refunds for flights."

Jackie says she feels frustrated when people talk about "personal freedom" in relation to whether they wear a mask. "Is it really freedom when we can't mask our son? At a certain point, I almost wish people would just be honest and tell me they don't care about my son instead of pretending they are fighting for freedom," she says. "Just be honest that you don't care about other people as long as your life is comfortable. That's how it's coming across, even if it's not being said."

But not every parent is unhappy with the end of the mandate. California mom Corritta Lewis tells Yahoo Life that her family plans to travel more now that the mandate has been lifted. "As a full-time travel family with a 3-year-old, navigating the mask mandates was difficult for us," she says. "This has substantially changed our plans for the summer. We planned to take mostly road trips because our 3-year-old has a hard time wearing a mask for several hours at a time, so now we can fly instead of driving."

Lewis says her family plans "to travel more this summer now that the mask mandate is lifted." She adds, "Traveling with a toddler is stressful enough, but having to make sure they wear a mask was overwhelming."

Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, urges families to vaccinate the family members who are eligible to try to protect those who aren't. But he still says that parents of children who can't wear masks and aren't vaccinated against COVID should reconsider their travel plans, depending on the level of COVID in the country. "Children are far from bulletproof," he tells Yahoo Life. "If the travel is not essential and there's a large community burden of disease, you may want to rethink things."

But infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life that parents need to make a personal assessment on this one. "The vast majority of children are at low risk for severe disease from COVID," he says. "For high-risk children who can wear a mask, one-way masking works."

Adalja also points out that "there is so much in life that is mask-free and higher-risk than travel — especially on airplanes where the air is heavily filtered and the air is very frequently exchanged."

Traveling on planes, trains, buses and other forms of transportation alongside people who aren't masked can be confusing for kids who have to mask up, and mental health experts recommend talking to your child about the reasons before your trip, if you decide to travel.

"Keep the conversation short and factual," Melissa Santos, division chief of pediatric psychology at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. "Emphasize for them that information about COVID is always changing and that we as a family are doing what we think is best to stay safe."

Licensed clinical psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, encourages parents to tell their children that they're making decisions for the family that not everyone may agree with.

"Emphasize that, as parents, you make decisions for the good of the family, taking into consideration the best facts you can gather and not to make judgments on what other families are deciding," he tells Yahoo Life. He also recommends being honest with your children about what they'll now see in public. "They will encounter some other children and families that will wear masks and some that won't," he says. "These decisions are up to each family and how they decide to keep each other safe and healthy. We might not agree with a family's decision, but we must respect their right to make decisions for the good of their family."

Overall, experts say that the decision to travel or not — and how to do it — is really up to the parents at this point. "It comes down to a personal decision," Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. "Parents will ultimately have to decide what is right for them and their family."

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