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Federal judge overturns travel mask mandate

Ruling comes just days after the CDC extended the requirement amid concern about latest virus variant

Commuters wearing masks travel on the Washington Metro on April 14.
Commuters wearing masks travel on the Washington Metro on April 14. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

The Biden administration Monday said it would not enforce the mask mandate for airplanes and transit after a federal judge in Florida struck it down.

In a 59-page order, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overstepped its authority by requiring passengers to wear masks on public transportation, saying the mandate ”exceeds the CDC’s statutory authority and violates the procedures required for agency rulemaking.”

The Biden administration responded late Monday with a statement saying that the agencies are reviewing the decision and assessing possible next steps.

“In the meantime, today’s court decision means CDC’s public transportation masking order is not in effect at this time,” said an administration official. “Therefore, TSA will not enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs at this time.”

The CDC recommended that people continue to wear masks in indoor public transportation settings.

The case, Health Freedom Defense Fund Inc., Ana Carolina Daza and Sarah Pope v. Biden, was tried in the U.S. District Court Middle District of Florida’s Tampa Division. Both Daza and Pope said in court filings that wearing masks exacerbates or provokes anxiety.

In her decision, Mizelle, ruled that the CDC wrongfully imposed the mandate without allowing public participation through the Administrative Procedure Act’s notice and comment procedures.

The ruling comes just days after the CDC extended the mask mandate, first imposed Jan. 29, 2021, through May 3. The order, which has been repeatedly extended, had been set to expire April 18.

It was extended because of a spike in cases in parts of the country primarily related to the BA.2 subvariant of the virus, which now makes up more than 85 percent of U.S. cases.

That spike included a handful of Cabinet secretaries and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who all reported testing positive for the virus this month.

Mizelle, a Trump-nominated judge who was confirmed in November 2020, was rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary.

In a Sept. 8, 2020 letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the committee said that Mizelle had not tried a case since being appointed to the bar in 2012. The letter said that though Mizelle “has a very keen intellect, a strong work ethic and an impressive resume,” she had not practiced law long enough to serve as a judge.

The mask mandate has received increasing pushback, particularly in the last few months as states have eased mask restrictions.

On March 15, eight Senate Democrats joined Republicans to vote 57-40 to overturn the mandate, and other lawsuits against the mandate are ongoing.

But not all lawmakers want the mandate to go away: Even before the latest outbreak, Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., was urging the mandate’s extension beyond April 18.

The travel industry has repeatedly expressed support for loosening the requirements, with some arguing that increased cases of violence on airplanes have been directly linked to Americans’ hesitance to abide by the public health requirements.

Before the ruling Monday, Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Airlines, told The Washington Post that he hopes the current extension is the last one.

“We’re all hoping on May 3 that the mandate expires and the government now puts it on individuals to make their own decisions about how they care and protect themselves from any kind of health risk rather than the government mandating it,” he said, saying “I may very well continue to wear a mask,” after the mandate expires.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, urged patience among travelers and flight attendants as airlines find out “what this means and what next steps may be taken in court by the government.”

“Immediately, we urge calm and consistency in the airports and on planes,” she said. “The last thing we need for workers on the frontlines or passengers traveling today is confusion and chaos.”

She said it takes a minimum of 24-to-48 hours to implement new procedures and communicate them throughout the network.

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Photos of the week ending April 19, 2024