You can take that mask off, but I’m keeping mine

Published on: April 21, 2022 8:00 AM EDT|Updated on: July 13, 2022 3:13 PM EDT

Leslie Gray Streeter wearing a face mask while traveling.

“Please don’t sit here. Please don’t sit here.”

I often attempt to send silent messages to strangers walking by the empty seat next to me any time I take open-seating transportation like trains, Disney World monorails and Southwest Airlines flights like the one I was on earlier this week.

Everybody wants the seat with more legroom, elbow room or for their heads to do that awkward neck flop while sleeping. So I try to silently discourage them … with my miiiiind. (Insert freaky mind control music.)

I played this Mental Travel Theatre on Tuesday, the first full day in nearly two years that masks became optional on American airplanes after a federal court order shooting down the Biden administration’s mandate. I sent extra strong telepathic messages to people considering plopping next to me who weren’t wearing one.

That’s because I think everyone should still be masked. I will be wearing one every time I fly.

Unmasked people would have had every right to sit in the empty seat next to me, but I honestly didn’t want them to. I didn’t say that, because I’m not about to be out here in these skies fighting people. But I was glad that the unmasked kept walking.

I’m sure this sounds melodramatic, but the world in which I started this trip to the West Coast with my vaccinated but unboosted second-grader is not the same one in which it ended. When we headed out about a week ago, masks were required on planes, and everyone complied, some of them grudgingly.

But on Tuesday, they didn’t have to anymore, and a lot of them chose not to — about 60% masked and 40% unmasked, in my rough estimation. It was jarring to see so many bare faces — on the moving walkway, in the airport restaurant where I drank my water through a straw under my mask and on the planes themselves. I’d found out about the change the day before we flew home, reading of ebullient flight crews and passengers cheering and ripping off their masks, like extras in a production of “Les Miserables”, the moment they found out the federal judge’s ruling. But some people in those photos who remained masked didn’t look so happy.

My feelings about masks are not political, because I don’t think public health is about politics any more than I believe that about wearing seat belts or shoes. Heck, I don’t think racism, homophobia and misogyny are political, either, but rather serious issues that affect how we live our lives, based on facts.These things aren’t esoteric concerns.

The Mayo Clinic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and family doctors all believe that wearing masks, especially when you’re close in quarters like on a plane, can slow the spread of COVID-19. Since I am an expert on writing about grief, parenting and “The Bachelorette,” I’m going to go with what those people say.

I also don’t believe that the many unmasked people I saw on our two flights care about their families any less than I care about mine. Nobody likes masks — they’re uncomfortable and it’s hard to eat and drink when wearing one and they leave marks on your face. But I think they work, and they work better when everyone is wearing one. Masks still have benefits if you’re the only person wearing one, but not as many. And I’m willing to be uncomfortable to keep myself and other people safe.

Given the response of travelers the day that the mandate was struck down, I was nervous about the mood I’d encounter on my two flights Tuesday. Were people going to encourage us to unmask? Was there going to be resistance from people who objected to the new ruling and got loud about it?

Fortunately, it was anticlimactic. Everyone did what they did, although I made some observations. There were a lot of unmasked families, and maybe 80% of the people of color I saw, passengers and crew alike, were masked. Everyone was polite, and nobody made a fuss either way. I was glad of that.

I know that so much weight is placed on choice and that people who don’t feel comfortable flying around the unmasked can just stay home. Sure they could. My answer to that is that a lot of us have nonrefundable tickets bought back in the distant, ancient time of BEFORE MONDAY when there was a different understanding for travel. I don’t think people who unmasked are rude. They were simply allowed to, and so they did.

My mental telepathy seems to have worked. On the first flight, our seat partner was a cheerful masked guy from Liverpool watching his team play Manchester United on his phone on the way to take his daughter on college visits. The second flight had about 40 open seats, including the one next to us.

The Department of Justice has announced that it will appeal the ruling, so there’s no telling what the rules are going to be when we fly next in a few months. But I just upgraded our seats to increase our chances of having the row to ourselves. And we’re going to be masked. Maybe the people sitting next to us won’t be, and I’ll have to be OK with it.

But I won’t like it. And I won’t feel as safe.