A federal judge in Florida on Monday struck down the Biden administration's mask mandate for airplanes and mass transit, arguing CDC overstepped its authority with the requirement. Now, major airlines and transportation services are no longer requiring staff or passengers to wear masks.
Details on the ruling
Last week, CDC announced it would extend its mask mandate for public transportation until May 3 in order to continue studying how the BA.2 subvariant of the coronavirus—which now accounts for around 85% of all cases in the United States—will impact case rates.
It was the mask mandate's fifth extension since the start of the pandemic, despite repeated requests from airlines and other travel industry officials to ease restrictions, USA Today reports.
However, on Monday, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle struck down the mandate saying that CDC exceeded its authority by issuing rules related to preventing the spread of communicable diseases, specifically "sanitation."
Mizelle said "sanitation" only applied to things like proper cleaning, not requiring people to be hygienic. "If Congress intended this definition, the power bestowed on the CDC would be breathtaking," Mizelle said. "And it certainly would not be limited to modest measures of 'sanitation' like masks."
Mizelle said the only option was to entirely vacate the rule, as it would be impossible to only apply it to the group of people who filed the lawsuit against the rule.
TSA says it will not enforce mask-wearing, airlines drop mask requirements
In response to the ruling, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on Monday said it will no longer enforce the mask mandate.
"The agencies are reviewing the decision and assessing potential next steps," a Biden administration official said. "In the meantime, today's court decision means CDC's public transportation masking order is not in effect at this time. Therefore, TSA will not enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs at this time."
A number of airlines and airports dropped their mask requirements in response to the ruling. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines have all said that wearing masks on most flights is now optional for passengers and staff.
Meanwhile, airports in Houston and Dallas both announced masks would now be optional, as did the Los Angeles International Airport.
In Washington, D.C., the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority announced masks would now be optional on buses and trains. However, the public transit system in New York City said it will keep its mask mandate in place for now as it continues to follow current CDC guidelines, but "will review the Florida court order," according to Metropolitan Transportation Authority communications director Tim Minton.
In addition, Amtrak said Monday night that passengers and employees were no longer required to wear masks on its trains or in stations, and Uber also announced that drivers and passengers would no longer be required to wear masks.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the ruling was "a disappointing decision," adding that CDC "continues recommending wearing a mask on public transit."
According to Psaki, "the Department of Homeland Security, who would be implementing, and the CDC are reviewing the decision. And of course, the Department of Justice would make any determination about litigation."
The Justice Department did not comment on whether it would request an emergency stay to block the ruling, the Associated Press reports.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said it would take airlines and airports at least 24 to 48 hours to communicate new masking rules for travelers.
"We will soon have more legal analysis on what this means and what next steps may be taken in court by the government," Nelson said. "We urge focus on clear communication so that flight attendants and other frontline workers are not subject to more violence created by uncertainty and confusion."
Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in a tweet praised the ruling. "Great to see a federal judge in Florida follow the law and reject the Biden transportation mask mandate," he said. "Both airline employees and passengers deserve to have this misery end."
However, some health experts expressed concern over dropping the mandate. Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at George Mason University, said dropping the mask mandate now is "very, very concerning."
"We're definitely starting to see a trend up in cases," she said. "My concern is that we may see what happened in the U.K., where they drastically pulled back restrictions and saw a significant surge, and this will contribute to rising numbers."
Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, said that, if the Biden administration wants the mandate to continue, it will have to appeal the decision. He added that he believes the mandate is within CDC's authority.
"If there were ever an instance where the CDC has authority to act, the classic case is to prevent the interstate transmission of a dangerous infectious disease," he said. (Anderson, Associated Press, 4/19; Gilbertson, USA Today, 4/19; Chalfant, The Hill, 4/18; Savage/Murphy, New York Times, 4/18; Beals, The Hill, 4/18; Wehrman, Roll Call, 4/18; Chen, Axios, 4/19; Evers-Hillstrom, The Hill, 4/18; Franklin, NPR, 4/18; Gangitano, The Hill, 4/18)