As the country emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and more people get vaccinated by the day, a growing number of air travelers say they’re fed up with the federal mask mandate and are refusing to wear a face cover while flying.
Thursday, the CDC announced new guidance recommending that anyone who’s fully vaccinated does not have to wear a mask in most situations. However, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said those recommendations do not apply to airline passengers who must still follow COVID-19 safety precautions.
Records obtained by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit show that defiant passengers have contributed to thousands of bans, brawls and arrests at airports throughout the country.
“You’re always going to have crazy people. It is what it is,” said frequent business flyer Bryan DiCerb.
As the co-founder of a video production company called Focused Media Strategies, DiCerb has flown throughout the pandemic, shooting commercials in 23 different states, including California. He believes unruly passengers are becoming more common although he says he’s yet to witness any full-scale brawls or fights.
“There's people that are defying the rules and they think they know better,” DiCerb said. “Luckily, they get yanked off the plane and they get prosecuted and they learn their lesson. Hopefully.”
NBC Bay Area reached out to a half dozen major commercial airlines throughout the United States to find out how many customers the airlines banned for refusing to wear a mask or follow COVID-19 protocols. Using the airlines’ responses NBC Bay Area tallied 2,609 passengers that have been grounded by airlines for failure to follow the rules.
The Investigative Unit spoke to one San Francisco Bay Area resident at Mineta San Jose International Airport who said he doesn’t wear a mask and shouldn’t be forced to do so.
“(The mask is) very uncomfortable, I got a pimple on my nose because of the mask,” the traveler said. “You should be allowed to do whatever you want to do.”
Why are Masks Required?
“The mask really does make a difference,” Harvard University Dr. Leonard Marcus told NBC Bay Area when asked about those travelers who are reticent to wear one.
Dr. Marcus has studied the issue extensively as the director of Harvard’s Aviation Public Health Initiative. Marcus said his team’s two scientific studies clearly show there’s a very low risk of contracting COVID-19 in airports or on planes if everyone abides by the health and safety protocols.
“The better the compliance with the face mask, the more people who get vaccinated, the quicker we're going to get to the other side of this crisis. That's simply the way it works,” Marcus said. “That behavioral piece is really important.”
But while that’s the way medical experts would like things to work, the Investigative Unit discovered non-compliance has become a big problem at California’s major airports.
NBC Bay Area reviewed incident logs at every major airport in the state and found at least 205 different calls to law enforcement because passengers who refuse to wear a mask or follow COVID-19 protocols.
“It's a federal regulation. It's a county regulation. It's an airport regulation. It's an airline regulation. You have to wear a mask,” Captain Chris Lucia with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department told NBC Bay Area.
Capt. Lucia is the commanding officer for police services at Oakland International Airport where COVID-19 compliance monitors logged 52 complaints about passengers refusing to wear a mask since April 30, 2020.
"Our deputies throughout their day will do foot patrols through the terminal reminding people to wear masks. Some people just forget because they're eating or drinking and they forget,” Capt. Lucia said. “If they don't have a mask, we'll provide them with a mask, if they continue to not follow the rules and refuse to put on a mask, we will ask them to leave. At that point, it can become a trespassing issue.”
Anyone found violating the mask mandate faces steep federal fines. In January, the FAA announced a new “zero tolerance” policy for passengers who cause a disturbance for flight crews. The agency has reviewed 450 cases since December, issuing $227,000 in fines against passengers. FAA officials told us they’ve opened at least 20 separate enforcement cases due to issues over COVID-19 protocols and masks. The enforcement cases range from refusing to wear a mask to a passenger physically attacking a flight attendant who asked the passenger to put on a mask.
This issue isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. In April, TSA announced the agency will extend the mask mandate until September 13.
For his part, DiCerb sees no problem with that and believes other airline travelers shouldn’t either.
“I'm perfectly fine wearing one on the plane. We can be smart,” DiCerb said.
If you have a tip for the Investigative Unit, you can reach us at 1-888-996-TIPS, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org