Poll: Most Americans plan to keep masking on planes and transit even without a mandate

·West Coast Correspondent
·4 min read

Although a Florida judge earlier this week overturned the federal mandate to wear masks while traveling, most Americans (52%) say masks should still be “required on airplanes, trains, buses and other public transportation," according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll.

Just one-third of Americans (34%) say masks should no longer be mandatory in those settings. Another 13% say they are unsure.

The survey of 1,605 U.S. adults was conducted from April 19 to 22 — immediately after a federal judge appointed by former President Donald Trump struck down the long-standing national mask order for travel and transit, unleashing a week of confusion and controversy. Social media was flooded with videos of passengers and flight crews cheering and even singing in celebration of the sudden reversal. The centrist pundit Josh Barro concluded that “leaving the transportation mandate in place so long” was “a mistake” because it made people feel as if “they were being ordered around for no good reason.”

Yet the Yahoo News/YouGov poll results suggest that while some Americans welcomed the decision — which the Department of Justice has appealed — they are significantly outnumbered by those who disagree. And mask opponents are likely to continue to be outnumbered even if the mandate isn’t reinstated.

Passengers, mainly wearing masks, wait in their seats as others wait in the aisle to find their places.
Passengers in New York City, almost all wearing face masks, board a flight to Charlotte, N.C., in May 2020. (Eleonore Sens/AFP via Getty Images)

In response to a follow-up question asking whether they will continue to mask on transit regardless of the rules, most Americans — an identical 52% — say yes. Just 34% say they will not. A slightly larger majority of U.S. adults (57%) say they would support requiring masks to be worn in all public indoor spaces "if COVID cases start to rise again in your area" — something that COVID cases are already doing in 40 states and in Washington, D.C.

In other words, while opponents of U.S. mask mandates may be louder than supporters, Americans as a whole remain more open to such requirements than the media coverage typically implies.

Party affiliation continues to play a major role in attitudes about masks. An overwhelming 75% to 13% majority of self-identified Democrats want masks required on public transportation, and a nearly identical 74% to 12% majority say they will continue wearing them even if they’re not required.

But opposition on the right is weaker than support on the left. While most Republicans say the transportation mandate should end (56%) and that they do not plan to continue wearing masks on transit in the absence of the mandate (55%), the margins here are much smaller than among Democrats. In fact, more than a third of Republicans say the transportation mandate should “continue” (36%), and the same number say they will keep masking on public transit even without a mandate. A plurality of independents agree with both of those positions — mandated travel masking (45% yes, 41% no) and continued personal masking on transit regardless of the rules (45% yes, 41% no).

This doesn’t mean Americans are desperate to cover their faces forever — or even that they’re still masking as much as they did during the winter surge in infections caused by the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

For the first time, a plurality of the country (42%) now considers the COVID “emergency” to be “over as it pertains to your own life” even if it’s not “over for others,” versus 39% who say the emergency is not over in their own lives.

As a result, only 42% of Americans say they wore a mask in public places “always” or “most of the time” in the past week, down from 62% in early February, 49% in mid-March and 46% earlier this month. That’s one percentage point below the previous low of 43% from July 2021 — just before the Delta variant took off in the U.S. And a full third of Americans (33%) now say they didn’t wear a mask at all during the previous week, the most ever.

By the same token, just 36% of Americans say they "plan to wear a mask indefinitely to prevent myself from ever getting COVID," with Republicans (27%) and independents (28%) about half as likely to express that view as Democrats (53%).

Instead, Americans largely seem to believe that it still makes sense to wear masks in some public settings — like cramped mass-transit conditions — even if they don’t wear masks in all public settings. Of those who say they plan to keep masking on planes, trains, buses and subways, for instance, nearly a third (32%) also say they masked only “some of the time” or “never” while outside their homes during the last week.

Someday, the public may turn decisively against mask mandates on public transportation. Even now, slightly more say "It is our individual responsibility to protect ourselves if we are vulnerable to the virus” (44%) than say "It is our collective responsibility to continue to protect those who are vulnerable to the virus” (41%).

But for the moment, at least, more Americans still think that everyone should mask on planes, trains, buses and subways than think otherwise.

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The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,605 U.S. adults interviewed online from April 19 to 22, 2021. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, as well as 2020 presidential vote (or nonvote) and voter registration status. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. adults. The margin of error is approximately 2.6%.