Memorial Day weekend is typically the start of the busy summer travel season, but this year it represents something more: the end of one of the roughest chapters in U.S. airline history.
Passenger traffic has been climbing for much of this year and hit a pandemic peak on Friday, when more than 1.95 million passengers passed through security checkpoints in the nation’s airports, according to the Transportation Security Administration. That level was last reached in early March 2020, as the coronavirus was just beginning its devastating spread across the United States.
However, with the return of passengers and the prospect of an end to billion-dollar losses, airlines have also seen a surge in disruptive and sometimes violent behavior — and a frequent flash point is the T.S.A.’s mandate that passengers remain fully masked throughout their flights.
Since Jan. 1, the Federal Aviation Administration has received about 2,500 reports of unruly behavior by passengers, of which about 1,900 involved refusals to comply with the mask mandate. The agency said that in the past it did not track reports of unruly passengers because the numbers had been fairly consistent, but that it began receiving reports of a “significant increase” in disruptive behavior starting in late 2020.
“We have just never seen anything like this,” Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said during an online meeting with federal aviation officials on Wednesday. “We’ve never seen it so bad.”
Two major airlines, American and Southwest, have postponed plans to resume serving alcohol on flights because of such incidents. American Airlines specified said that alcohol sales — except in first and business class — would remain suspended through Sept. 13, when the T.S.A. mask mandate is set to expire.
Both airlines announced the shift after a woman punched a flight attendant in the face on a Southwest Airlines flight from Sacramento to San Diego a week ago, an assault that was captured on a widely watched video.
The flight attendant lost two teeth, according to her union, and the passenger has been charged with battery causing serious bodily injury and barred for life from flying Southwest.
More than a month ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidelines, saying that fully vaccinated people did not need to wear masks in most situations — except in airplanes, on mass transit, in health care centers and in congregate settings, like prisons.
On Sunday, on the CNN program “State of the Union,” the transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, was asked what scientific evidence justified keeping the airplane mask mandate. “Part of it has to do with unique conditions of the physical space,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “Part of it has to do with the workplace and folks who don’t have a choice about being there.”
“The bottom line is, we have a set of rules in place to keep people safe,” he added, “and I really hope that travelers will respect flight attendants, bus operators, workers, anybody who is simply doing their job to keep people safe.”
The United States looks to continue what has been a steady decline in cases, deaths and hospitalizations since mid-April. As of Sunday, its seven-day averages of cases and deaths are the lowest since June 2020, and hospitalizations are at the lowest level since early in the pandemic.
India, after a terrifying surge in April and early May, has seen cases plummeting for three weeks. But the death toll, which often lags a few weeks behind changes in case numbers, is still high and began dropping modestly only last week.
Vietnam said last week it had discovered a new, more contagious variant that was a mix of those first detected in India and Britain. It remains unclear how well the variant is fully understood.
Taiwan, which had been nearly Covid-free throughout the pandemic, is now recording several hundred cases a day.
Britain is closely watching an increase in cases because though numbers remain relatively low, the variant first found in India accounts for most of the spread. A surge now could threaten plans to ease the last of its lockdown restrictions on June 21.
Organizers of the Copa América, South America’s largest soccer tournament, said on Sunday that it would no longer take place in Argentina, which is mired in its worst coronavirus surge to date.
It is unclear where the 10-nation tournament, which is set to start June 13, will now take place. The South American soccer federation, Conmebol, which organizes the event, said it would consider offers to move it to other countries that had expressed interest.
The Argentine government and public have been torn over the wisdom of hosting the monthlong tournament, in a discussion that mirrors the one taking place in Japan over holding the Tokyo Olympics this summer. On Friday, officials in Japan, which is recording more than 4,000 cases a day amid a fourth wave of infections, extended a state of emergency in Tokyo and eight other prefectures until at least June 20, just over a month before the opening ceremony.
Last week, President Alberto Fernández of Argentina announced stringent lockdown measures until the end of the month, calling this his country’s “worst moment in the pandemic.” Argentina now ranks third in the world, after neighboring Paraguay and Uruguay, in the number of deaths per capita over the past week, according to a New York Times database. The country of 45 million is reporting an average of more than 30,000 new cases a day, compared with 20,000 in the United States.
Mr. Fernández also met last week with Alejandro Domínguez, the head of Conmebol, and presented a “strict protocol” for holding the tournament if the soccer federation wanted it to go ahead in Argentina as planned.
The 2020 edition of the Copa América was postponed by a year last spring after the start of the pandemic. In soccer-crazed Argentina, which last hosted the event in 2011, it was seen as a joyous occasion to host some of the sport’s biggest stars, including the country’s own Lionel Messi. But calls to move the tournament, which takes place every four years, somewhere other than Argentina have mounted in recent weeks, with opponents on Twitter using the hashtag #NoALaCopaAmericaEnArgentina, and #NoToTheCopaAmericaInArgentina.
Earlier this month, Conmebol removed Colombia as a co-host of the tournament after rejecting the country’s request to postpone it amid continuing civil unrest and antigovernment protests in which dozens of people have died.
That left Conmebol to consider holding the entire championship in Argentina, amid rumors that there could be a last-minute agreement to include another host, like Chile, a vaccination success story in South America that has fully inoculated more than 40 percent of its population. Vaccinations in many other parts of the region have been lagging, prompting some wealthy and middle-class Latin Americans to seek them in the United States instead.
Daniel Politi contributed reporting.
Gun sales have been climbing for decades, but Americans have been on an unusual, prolonged buying spree fueled by the coronavirus pandemic, the protests last summer and the fears they both stoked.
In March last year, federal background checks, a rough proxy for purchases, topped one million in a week for the first time since the government began tracking them in 1998. And the buying continued, through the protests in the summer and the election in the fall, until a week this spring broke the record with 1.2 million background checks.
“There was a surge in purchasing unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, a gun researcher at the University of California, Davis. “Usually it slows down. But this just kept going.”
Not only were people who already had guns buying more, but people who had never owned one were buying them too. New preliminary data from Northeastern University and the Harvard Injury Control Research Center show that about a fifth of all Americans who bought guns last year were first-time owners. And the data, which has not been previously released, showed that new owners were less likely than usual to be male and white. Half were women, a fifth were Black and a fifth were Hispanic.
“Americans are in an arms race with themselves,” said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents South Los Angeles, where the surge in gun violence has been particularly sharp, on the City Council. “There was just as much a run on guns as on toilet paper in the beginning of the pandemic.”
There is no single reason for the surge, but social scientists point to many potential drivers.
“There is a breakdown in trust and a breakdown in a shared, common reality,” said Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at the University of Maryland who writes about political violence. “There is also all this social change, and social change is scary.”
Thomas Harris, a former law enforcement officer who works at the gun counter at Sportsman’s Warehouse in Roanoke, Va., said that around March last year, the customers he would speak with began to include more white-collar workers, such as people from insurance firms and software companies. He said many of the buyers were not conservative and most had never handled a gun.
“They were saying: ‘We’re going to be locking down. We’re constrained to our homes. We want to keep safe.’”