Man removed from airliner for not putting his mask back on between bites of candy

Apparently, the federal government, via the TSA, is requiring airline passengers to put face masks back on between bites (and sips of beverage) while on airplanes.  This story from WJZ TV in Baltimore tells the tale of a passenger who learned the hard way about this absurd regulation:

A Baltimore County man said he was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight for not wearing a mask while eating Twizzlers and wants to share his story in the hopes things will change.

The passenger, Avi Mandel, says:

He was waiting on the plane for it to take off for Fort Lauderdale when he got hungry and opened a pack of Twizzlers, a frequent snack.

A flight attendant told Mandel he had to put his mask on "and kind of, like, ran away.  And I'm like, 'Oh, I guess she didn't know I was eating.' Then I hear on the loudspeaker, 'Everyone who's eating has to wear masks in between bites.'"

Mandel said he didn't think much of it at the time. But the plane returned to the gate, and a security team came to escort him off the plane, he said. He said he remained calm and respectful and other passengers stuck up for him.

Mandel showed video of passenger Stephanie Misiaszek, who said, "That is so wrong. He did nothing wrong, wow."

Mandel said he knew he had no choice but to leave the plane and described it as embarrassing.

After writing to Southwest Airlines, he was told:

[A] new federal mask mandate went into effect requiring airline passengers to wear face masks at all times, including "in between bites."

"If I knew this rule ahead of time, I would have happily listened, but I had no clue," Mandel said.

According to media accounts, the TSA only extended existing mask mandates, with no mention of new regulations regarding mask-wearing between bites or sips.  On the four flights I have taken in the last few months on three different airlines, there was no mention of putting masks back on after each bite or sip, and I observed nobody behaving this way.

Last October, California's Governor Gavin Newsom was widely mocked when he advised Californians to  put their masks back on between bites when dining with others:

Flight attendants, who are forced to enforce unpopular restrictions on passenger behavior, rely on the force of federal regulation to help them coerce compliance.  At least one union leader said so last month:

The president of the largest flight attendants union said during a U.S. Senate subcommittee meeting earlier this month that airlines still need the backing of the federal government to enforce passenger compliance with their mask requirements. 

"We are still in the middle of the crisis,'' Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said during a meeting of the Aviation Safety, Operations and Innovation subcommittee of the Senate Commerce committee. "I do think it's important that we recognize that and stay the course here with the mask policies, with all of our diligence (and) with the efforts to get the vaccine out to everyone.''

Returning Mr. Mandel's plane to the gate seems a bit extreme, but if the pilot believed he was actively flouting regulations that the airline is required to enforce, then he did what was necessary.  Pilots and airlines do not like returning to the gate; it costs time and money and impairs the on-time arrival of a flight. 

Mandel claims that the plane was already headed back to the gate before he heard that masking between bites was required.  Since I was not there and no recordings are available of the complete interaction, I have no way of knowing if Mandel's account is totally accurate.  He does have my sympathy, and I am glad he was not placed on the no-fly list, a severe penalty that seems to be arbitrarily applied to passengers for all sorts of reasons.

In my view, the requirement of masking between bites is asinine, and it spreads an atmosphere of fear more than protecting anyone from disease transmission.  That much touching of the mask while eating and drinking, and laying it down repeatedly, risks contamination and the spread of illness.

Photo credit: Dylan Ashe CC BY 2.0 license.

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