Listen: Is It Safe to Fly?

Wells: Okay. But you have no control over the other people on the plane and there are many well-documented examples of people not wearing masks on planes, including, recently, Ted Cruz. Does that change things?

Hamblin: Right. There is a theoretical possibility that you get seated next to someone who has been really inconsiderate and is symptomatic and refuses to wear a mask. And I don’t know what recourse airlines have in compelling them to. But we haven’t heard about violent showdowns where someone’s refusing to wear a mask. It seems that people mostly have been pretty good about that.

Wells: But what if she walks on the flight and it’s full and the person sitting next to her either doesn’t have a mask or is wearing it incorrectly?

Hamblin: Yeah, that’s an unfortunate situation, but from what we’re seeing, there aren’t reports of lots of transmission on planes, especially since people started taking these precautions. So, yes, it’s a risk—but it’s a very small risk. I think that as more and more people start to travel, there’s probably going to be some interesting confrontations and maybe even legal battles about this.

Wells: I’m going to tell you what I would do if I were her in that situation: I would insist to the flight attendant that I needed a different seat and say that I’m an at-risk person and I can’t sit next to the person.

Hamblin: Yeah, I think that would be a great move. If it’s a full flight, your options might be more limited. But I just have to think that there’s enough collective spirit right now that it wouldn’t just be the flight attendant scolding that coughing person who refuses to wear a mask; it would be, like, the entire seven rows all around that person. [Laughs]

Wells: All right, here’s another question: What about public restrooms? She’s going to wear a diaper to avoid public restrooms. Is that what she should do? You’ve told us about toilet plumes. It seems like public restrooms have the potential to be dangerous, right?

Hamblin: You should not have to wear a diaper. Public restrooms are supposed to have ventilation systems that suck air out of the restroom, and anything lingering in the air is not lingering long.

Wells: Do airplane bathrooms have that?

Hamblin: Airplane bathrooms have ventilation like the rest of the plane. One thing is that you should still wear a mask. I wouldn’t assume it’s safe just because you’re alone. I would still wear the mask. We know that flushing a toilet has the capacity to aerosolize virus, if there was virus in the stool that was in that toilet. We don’t know how much virus would have to be present in order to infect someone, and airplane bathrooms are kind of weird. They don’t have the same swirling water mechanisms—they just suck down. I don’t believe they have specifically been studied as a contributor.

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