Mask or No Mask? It Really Shouldn’t Be a Question

Airline Tech Featured Health Tech Wearable Tech

Let’s understand something: COVID-19 isn’t just going away miraculously next week, or next month, maybe not even next year.  Just today, the largest tech conference in the U.S. announced it is going virtual with its January 2021 edition.  Of course, it’s not really easy to devise a way to ensure distancing and other protocols are followed when you’re talking about nearly 200,000 people.  All the tech in the world can’t help keep that many people distanced.

Of course, you also have the mask dilemma.  There’s no question that masks help.  You may be able to debate how much they help, but not that they have some benefit.  Of course, that debate also depends on what kind of masks you’re talking about.

At the end of the day, though, if you don’t wear them, you’re gaining exactly zero benefit.  Unfortunately – and this is something most people clearly either don’t understand or don’t care about – it also fails to protect others.

The good news is many major brands are requiring customers to wear masks when entering their locations.  This includes names like Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Costco, Kroger, Kohl’s, CVS, Target, Walgreens, Best Buy, and many more.  Airlines, too, in an effort to attract passengers – and, of course, keep them and staff safer – are requiring passengers and staff to wear face coverings in addition to their enhanced safety procedures.  It’s what they should do.

“We are not defenseless against COVID-19.  Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus – particularly when used universally within a community setting.  All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”

Dr. Robert R. Redfield, Director, CDC

The problem is, what do you do if customers choose not to follow the rules? 

Retail stores can fairly easily refuse service and ask customers to leave the premises.  Sure, the saying goes, “The customer is always right,” but we know that’s not really true.  For all the effort brands put into accommodating customers, whether they are right or wrong, they have a choice to make with COVID-19.  What’s more important, individual customers who refuse to comply or the majority of customers (and employees) who accept and follow the rules?  Sometimes, you just have to fire the customer. 

That said, there are some stores that have said they will continue to serve customers who refuse to comply with the mask policy.  In that sense, you can cross Wal-Mart, CVS, Walgreens and some others off the list – it’s clearly not a real requirement for them.

But what about airlines?  Once you’re in the air, it’s impossible to kick passengers off the plane, and non-compliance isn’t cause for an emergency landing.  Most major airlines have said they “may” refuse future travel to passengers who refuse to wear a mask while on their planes.  The key word is may – it sounds like an idle threat. Most of them echo comments from Alaska Airlines.

“We’re counting on both our guests and employees to be considerate of one another to wear face coverings and contribute to our constant effort to keep everyone healthy and safe.”

Ben Minicucci, President, Alaska Airlines

That said, Alaska Airlines is taking perhaps a slightly more proactive and enforceable approach than most airlines.  When passengers check in, they are required to sign a health agreement that attests to their understanding of and willingness and ability to comply with the airline’s mask policy.

That said, even it uses vague language when it talks about repercussions:  “The guest’s travel with us will be reviewed and could be suspended for a period.”

Alaska Airlines, though, is doing at least one more thing that might, if nothing else, embarrass customers enough that they’ll put on a mask.  Flight attendants will ask passengers who aren’t wearing masks to put them on.  As a final warning, though, flight attendants will present passengers with a yellow card, indicating they have failed to comply with airline policy will be put into the review process. 

If only they would also give flight attendants a whistle, so everyone on board is aware those passengers are out of compliance. 

But really, is it more than just a gimmick?  The question really surrounds how much any airline will actually refuse travel to passengers.  They have the same question to ask:  What’s more important, a single passenger or the rest of its customers and staff?  Of course, there is one additional level of complexity:  Status.  One has to believe frequent flyers will be given greater leeway than one-off travelers.  While airline status shouldn’t impact health standards, it’s a safe bet that it will.  Of course, frequent travelers are probably more likely to contract the virus – especially if they refuse to wear masks – and are then more likely to spread it to others. 

Here’s the simple answer to everyone:  Just wear a mask, please.  Sure, it may be a little less comfortable, but in the end, it helps everyone.  For what it’s worth, there are some fairly comfortable masks available — and in a variety of colors and designs, so you can have a little fun with them. You can even buy several to coordinate with your wardrobe, if you want.