U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle of the Central District of Florida said the warrant exceeded the statutory authority of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last week, federal authorities extended the mask mandate for commercial flights and in other settings, including on buses, ferries and subways, until at least May 3.
The transportation mandate has been among the most high-profile mask requirements in the nation, persisting after most school districts and other jurisdictions allowed similar mandates to expire. Disputes over masks have been particularly acute on planes, where some flight attendants have been physically attacked and verbally abused for enforcing mask rules.
The decision comes as coronavirus cases climb again in the Northeast as the BA.2 omicron subvariant, which is more contagious than its predecessor, becomes the predominant strain in the United States. Health officials say it’s unclear whether the rise is the start of a bigger surge.
The CDC’s masking order was enforced through guidelines issued by the Transportation Security Administration. A Biden administration official, who shared advice with reporters on condition of anonymity, said late Monday that the court’s decision means the CDC order is “not effective at this time.” Therefore, the TSA will not enforce its safety guidelines “requiring face coverings.
Airlines have started announcing they are dropping the requirement, with some caveats for international destinations. In a statement, United Airlines said that “effective immediately, masks are no longer required at United on domestic flights, certain international flights (depending on the mask requirements of the country of arrival) or in US airports.
In the Washington area, Metro announced late Monday that masks are optional on its rail and bus systems for Metro customers and employees.
Mask mandate extended for air travel and public transport until May 3
In his decision On Monday, Mizelle, who was nominated by President Donald Trump and clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, said the CDC relied on a 1944 statute, the Public Health Services Act, to impose the mandate. But the government’s argument that it put the mask requirement in place for “sanitation” purposes falls short, Mizelle argued.
“Wearing a mask does not clean anything. At most, it traps viral droplets. But it does not ‘disinfect’ the person wearing the mask or ‘disinfect’ the conveyance,” Mizelle wrote.
The case was brought on behalf of a legal group known as the Health Freedom Defense Fund and airline passengers, including Ana Daza, who said her anxiety was made worse by wearing a mask.
Mizelle concluded for the plaintiffs on three key issues, finding that the CDC exceeded its legal authority, that it improperly avoided notice and comment procedures, and that its mandate was “arbitrary and capricious.” In her decision, Mizelle argued that the mask mandate wrongfully restricts passengers’ freedom of movement.
“Anyone who refuses to comply with the mask-wearing condition is – in some way – detained or partially quarantined by exclusion” from their means of transport, she wrote.
Industry trade group Airlines for America said US airlines “have been strong advocates for the elimination of pandemic-era policies and are encouraged by the lifting of the federal transportation mask mandate.” The group said the high immunity levels in the United States and widespread accessibility to vaccines, as well as hospital-grade cabin air filtration, should give travelers confidence.
The CDC said Monday it does not comment on ongoing litigation.
In a legal filing last month defending the warrant, attorneys for the Justice Department said plaintiffs in the case relied on an “unduly narrow and grammatically incorrect” interpretation of public health law. They noted that Congress had authorized health officials to establish and enforce regulations “necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases” from outside or within the country, by using “remediation” and “other measures”. They also noted that the Supreme Court, in a case last year, said these measures were directly related to preventing the interstate spread of the disease “by identifying, isolating and destroying the disease itself”. .
Masking requirements have generally been established after considering emerging epidemiology on limiting the spread of the virus, and not on an “arbitrary or capricious” basis, said Jeanne Marrazzo, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, in an email citing the words Mizelle used in her decision.
“I think the CDC was just being cautious given the extraordinary opportunities for mixing that airports have and the mixing that’s happening there,” she said. “In the plane, while it’s flying, as I said before, the air exchange is good, but we still don’t know how good it is with this new, much more contagious variant. “
The Biden administration announced the mandate soon after President Biden took office, following resistance from the Trump administration. Airline policies at the time required the wearing of masks.
“It’s obviously a disappointing decision,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday, adding that the CDC and the White House continue to recommend wearing masks on public transportation.
She said the Department of Homeland Security — which includes the TSA — is reviewing the decision. The Justice Department “will make all decisions regarding litigation,” Psaki said. A Justice Department spokeswoman said the agency was reviewing the decision and declined to comment further.
Airline CEOs call for end of federal mask term in letter to Biden
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines, said many legal uncertainties remained on Monday. In a statement, she called for “calm and consistency at airports and on planes”.
“The last thing we need for frontline workers or passengers traveling today is confusion and chaos,” she said.
Nelson urged travelers to check with airlines about their masking requirements. She said clear communication would help flight attendants and other front-line workers avoid issues that could arise from confusion surrounding the changing rules.
“In flight operations, it is impossible to just flip a switch overnight. It takes at least 24 to 48 hours to implement new procedures and communicate them to the entire network,” said she declared.
A March poll by health group KFF found Americans were roughly split on whether the federal government should extend the mask requirement for planes, trains and other public transportation (48% ) or let it expire (51%). More than 7 in 10 Democrats said it should be extended, while 76% of Republicans favored its expiration.
Monday’s flyers got mixed reactions.
Stephanie Dexter, her husband, Brad, and their daughter, Eva, wore surgical masks and cone-shaped K95 masks as they exited Reagan National Airport on Monday afternoon. They had flown Eva from Omaha to DC for spring break, where they planned to visit landmarks and museums. The mask mandate did not weigh heavily on their minds.
“We were going to wear them well today,” said Stephanie Dexter. ” I am asthmatic. I’m fine not to get sick.
Phil Delin, 67, of Prince George’s County, Maryland, said he heard about the judge’s decision before arriving at the airport with his golf clubs for a trip to Las Vegas.
“I still don’t understand a Florida judge overturning a federal warrant when the warrant is backed by as much science as it is,” he said. He did not hesitate to wear a mask on board his Monday evening flight.
Simon Rojas, 29, who had returned to Reagan National in shorts from Las Vegas, stood outside waiting for his ride as a cold wind forced others to wait for a ride back into the terminal. He said he was glad the judge ruled against the mandate, saying it made no sense to wear a mask on a plane when people are so close and lifting masks to drink and eat.
“Just take them off,” Rojas, of Laurel, Md., said of the mask regulations. “In the news, they say the death rate is going down, right? Also, I think if you’re in such a closed space like an airplane, that mask doesn’t do anything.
21 states sue Biden administration to end mask-carrying mandate
The Biden administration has faced growing pressure to lift the mask requirement for air travel and public transportation. Earlier this month, Republican leaders on the House and Senate Transportation Committees reiterated their call for Biden to “cancel or decline to extend the mask’s term.”
In late March, 21 mostly Republican-led states sued the government, seeking an immediate end to the mask requirement.
Last month, executives from 10 airlines, including American, United and Delta, sent a letter to Biden urging him to end pandemic-related travel policies, including the mask mandate.
Airlines and airports hope spring travel boom will carry over into summer
The decision comes as airlines see an increase in travel in the spring – an increase that the industry says will continue through the summer and beyond. Transportation Security Administration officials have reported an increase in the number of people being screened at airport checkpoints, with many days routinely surpassing the 2 million mark, as they had before the pandemic.
Scott Clement and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.