Pete Buttigieg became the butt of million jokes when he was announced as the nominee to lead the Department of Transportation under the Biden administration.
Yes, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana was clearly a man on the rise after one of the most improbable presidential campaigns in recent memory, one that began with him having to remind almost every interviewer how his surname was pronounced and then answering why the heck he was there, and ended after winning the most votes in the Iowa caucuses and coming in second in the New Hampshire primary.
However, when he was announced as President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the DOT, Buttigieg highlighted the fact he’d had “a personal love of transportation” stemming from trips on Amtrak to proposing to his husband in an airport terminal. That’s not a resumé for transportation secretary, that’s an 800-word college admittance essay about impactful life experiences using planes, trains and automobiles as a theme.
Pete Buttigieg, President-elect Biden’s pick for transportation secretary, said he has “a personal love of transportation,” recounting train trips on Amtrak while in college, and said he proposed to his now-husband, Chasten, in an airport terminal. https://t.co/0t3cUASIAU
— NPR Politics (@nprpolitics) December 16, 2020
Since then, there’s been little to disabuse us of the notion that he’s looking like a draft bust as transportation secretary, a bit of an issue when the president and Democrats plan to dump trainloads and airport terminals full of cash into infrastructure. I will say this, though: On Sunday, he proved he has a firm grasp on the true value of mask mandates. Unfortunately, I’m guessing that’s not what he was supposed to do.
In an appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” Buttigieg told host Martha Raddatz that wearing a mask on board planes and other forms of transportation was a sign of “respect,” even though he couldn’t come up with any reason why it added to safety, particularly given recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that vaccinated Americans don’t need to wear masks.
The topic came up in the context of a viral altercation aboard a Southwest Airlines flight from Sacramento to San Diego — which, as New York magazine’s The Cut recounted, may or may not have been mask-related. A flight attendant lost two teeth in the May 23 fracas.
In response, both Southwest and American Airlines have banned alcohol sales on flights until Sept. 13, when the federal mask mandate on airplanes expires. According to NPR, Southwest said it made the decision “given the recent uptick in industry-wide incidents of passenger disruptions inflight.”
“As people return, of course, we are coming out of one of the biggest shocks, perhaps the biggest shock that the modern American transportation system has ever seen in terms of demand, schedules, all of these things changing. And so the system is getting back into gear,” Buttigieg said.
“One thing I want to emphasize is, safety, of course, considers to be our top consideration. And a lot of American will be traveling for the first time. That also means, for the first time in a while, maybe encountering flight crews and flight attendants and other transportation workers.
“Remember what they have been through, what they have been doing to keep you safe, and make sure to show some appreciation and respect to everybody from a bus driver, operator to a flight attendant to a captain,” he continued. “They have been on the front lines of this pandemic, their jobs have been in doubt. They are here for your safety, and it’s so important to show appreciation for the work that they’re doing in this very, very busy holiday weekend.”
The subtext here was obvious, given how many people had seen the Southwest Airlines video. However, Raddatz noted that while Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the mask mandates would stay in effect throughout the summer travel season, “health experts have told us there’s really no difference between an airplane or a restaurant or gym where vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks. Why not institute that same policy on airplanes?”
Buttigieg replied that “some of the differences have to do with the physical space, some of them have to do with it being a workplace where in some of these transit and travel situations people don’t have a choice.”
“But just remember that the flight crews and other workers you encounter, they’re doing their job. They’re following regulations and they’re there to keep you safe,” he continued.
“It is absolutely unacceptable to ever mistreat a transportation worker, and of course, there is very serious fines and enforcement around that. It’s a matter of safety but it’s also a matter of respect. And as we get back and as we’re so thankful to get back to the skies, to get back on the road, to get back to loved ones, let’s make sure we are doing it in a way that we can all be proud of.”
Now, firstly, anyone who attacks a flight attendant or anyone else over any kind of mandate deserves every moment they spend in zip-tie handcuffs, court and/or jail. We can all agree on that.
Beyond that, however, it’s curious that tensions have risen on planes as mask mandates are enforced, even as vaccination becomes more common and the CDC’s recommendations have changed, and the airlines’ solution is to … stop serving alcohol. Because that’s clearly the variable causing friction.
As for the reason behind the continued mask mandate, Buttigieg can’t cite any particular evidence it’s necessary until Sept. 13, something you’d hope the transportation secretary would be able to explicate on the spot — if an explication existed. Instead, this is all about “respect” for the “flight crews and other workers you encounter.”
Beyond the fact this is a ludicrous reason to keep travelers in masks until Sept. 13 — “respect” instead of science — he’s also neglecting the other half of the problem, the draconian, Nurse Ratched-like manner in which the mask rules are often enforced by airlines, particularly as it pertains to children with disabilities.
But then again, this is what mask-wearing is about now: Feelings and optics, not science.
In April, Biden said wearing a mask after being vaccinated is “a patriotic responsibility, for God’s sake,” even though the evidence says otherwise.
National COVID-19 guru Dr. Anthony Fauci said he wears his mask in indoor settings because “I didn’t want to look like I was giving mixed signals” even though “being a fully vaccinated person, the chances of my getting infected, in an indoor setting, is extremely low.”
In a piece for The Atlantic, film critic Dana Stevens defended masking because it “serves a broader social purpose: It says to those around us that, whatever our vaccine status, we value community safety.”
If these individuals and so many others want to continue wearing a mask even though there’s no reason to, fine. But don’t pretend it’s in the name of social cohesion, “patriotic duty” or “respect” for one another. The mask is now a political object. It’s about scoring a W. It’s about those who’ve lived in tremulous fear for the past year — or those who’ve politically benefited from that fear — forcing you to respect their apprehensions.
So much for following the science. At least, however, we can give Pete Buttigieg credit for letting us know what this was all about.
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