Every leading U.S. airline will require passengers to wear facial coverings during flights. Airlines say they won’t let customers without masks board a plane. (May 6)
On a recent flight from Nairobi, Kenya, to Cairo, Wycliffe Okoth sat next to two women wearing masks – on their chins. He faced one of the most common traveler dilemmas of 2020: What do you do when your seatmate won’t wear a mask, despite airline rules?
“One of the ladies was of the opinion that COVID-19 does not exist and that governments are only faking it to get donor funds,” says Okoth, an essayist from New York. “The other one believed that COVID-19 is real but is being exaggerated.”
He asked them to wear their masks correctly. One of them complied, but the other refused because she insisted COVID-19 didn’t exist despite more than 64 million cases and 1.5 million deaths worldwide. Finally, he asked a crew member to intervene. The COVID-19 denier grudgingly agreed to mask up, but when the flight attendant left, she slipped her mask off her face again.
“People who defy mask mandates now are doing it intentionally, often with great hostility,” says Katie Foss, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University and author of the book “Constructing the Outbreak: Epidemics in Media & Collective Memory.”
Here’s one thing we can probably agree on: COVID-194 fatigue is real. The drama playing itself out on planes is emblematic of a broader conflict happening everywhere.
And oh, what a drama it is.
Although most passengers are complying with the mask rules, some have found creative ways around them. Airlines are selectively banning passengers who refuse to comply with the requirements or threatening them with worse. One flight attendant was captured on video claiming that flight attendants were government officials (they aren’t) and that passengers who didn’t comply would never be able to fly on any airline again (there is no such blacklist).
What do the experts say about seatmates who won’t wear a mask?
Etiquette experts say the best way to deal with a seatmate who won’t mask up is not to deal with one at all.
“Fighting with someone that you have to sit next to for hours may not be the right idea,” says Adeodata Czink, who runs an etiquette consultancy called Business of Manners.
Her advice? Ask for another seat. Let the flight crew deal with the scofflaw.
Saying something is a personal choice, says Diane Gottsman, who runs the Protocol School of Texas.
“You can certainly turn to your seatmate and politely request they adjust their mask to fit properly,” she says. “But you’re clearly taking a risk – especially in tight quarters where you’re not certain how the other person will react.”
How to negotiate with someone who won’t mask up
Nick Leighton, an etiquette expert who co-hosts the podcast “Were you raised by wolves?,” says the negotiation can be