Southwest’s CEO disagrees with states ending mask mandates, says some pandemic-era changes are here to stay

Mar 15, 2021

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Wearing a mask or face covering is the best way to protect oneself and others from COVID-19, according to most public health experts. But that hasn’t stopped them from becoming politicized and controversial.

Earlier this month Texas and Mississippi controversially lifted their public mask mandates and allowed businesses to reopen at 100% capacity, despite the ongoing pandemic. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott did, however, say that people should still choose to wear masks.

“Removing state mandates does not end personal responsibility and caring for your family members, friends and others in your community,” Abbott said, according to CNN. “People and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate.”

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Gary Kelly, CEO of Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, said on Monday that he thinks masks should still be worn in public, regardless of any state’s policies.

“I’m a huge believer in wearing a mask. I think every individual needs to do his or her part to help crush this pandemic,” Kelly said during an online forum hosted by the Washington Post. “I don’t think it’s too much to ask people to do that. You’re protecting others and you’re protecting yourself.”

“Until the pandemic is over, yes, we should absolutely continue to physically distance, as much as we can, and wear masks as much as we can,” he added.

Although U.S. airlines have each individually imposed mask requirements since last spring, a federal mandate for mask use on airplanes was only instituted in January, shortly following President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Despite ongoing political tensions, Kelly said that he has not gotten any pushback against mask requirements from Southwest employees.

“We’ve got about 55,000 employees and they reflect the population at large,” he said. “So you have varying views, but I think our people understand that we’re a family here and we’re trying to look out for everyone’s best interest.”

Passengers, however, are another matter.

“Now, every day we’ll have a customer who objects to wearing a mask,” Kelly said. “And I respect that, but we’re in charge of the airplane and making sure that people are safe, and when you’re on our airplane, you’ve got to wear the mask.”

Kelly’s comments come on the heels of a three-week period that has seen an increase in travelers and in forward bookings. As vaccination ramps up around the country — President Biden said last week that all Americans will have access to the vaccine by May — those increases are expected to continue.

But even as restrictions lift and travel resumes, Kelly said that some pandemic-era changes are here to stay.

“We refresh the air in the cabin every two to three minutes. We have very intense deep cleaning protocols, and those things won’t go away just because the pandemic is declared ended,” he said. “So I think it just remains to be seen what role masks play in an enclosed environment like that.”

Featured image courtesy of Scott Olson/Getty Images.

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