Federal judge overturns mask mandate for airplanes and public transit

WASHINGTON — A federal judge in Florida has overturned the mask requirement on planes, trains, buses and other public transportation Monday, less than a week after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended it through May 3.

The decision left it up to individual airlines and local transportation agencies to decide what to do, and by Monday night the country’s largest airlines had dropped their mask requirements for domestic flights. The Amtrak rail system said passengers and employees will no longer need to wear masks.

In a 59-page ruling, Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, who was appointed by President Donald J. Trump, overturned the mandate — which also applies to airports, train stations and other transportation hubs — nationwide for several reasons, including that the agency had exceeded its legal authority under the Public Health Services Act 1944. Because of the ruling, the masking order was not in effect at this time and the Transportation Security Administration would not enforce it, a Biden administration official said late Monday.

The official said the administration is still reviewing the decision and evaluating whether to appeal, and that the CDC is still recommending that people wear masks on closed public transportation.

It was still unclear to what extent local transportation agencies would seek to keep their mandates in place. Earlier in the day, before the administration official said the TSA would not enforce the mandate, several state and local transportation agencies across the country suggested they would keep their mask requirements for the instant.

Still, governments and businesses across the country have largely eased precautions, and now known new cases of the coronavirus are rising sharply again. When the CDC extended its mask rule last week, it cited a desire to assess the potential severity of the Omicron subvariant known as BA.2, which has recently become the dominant version among new cases. Americans. (On Monday, the city of Philadelphia reinstated a mask mandate in response, becoming the first major city to do so.)

President Biden had asked the CDC to impose a mask mandate on travelers shortly after his inauguration, and the agency did so beginning Feb. 2, 2021. It has extended that mandate multiple times. In July 2021, the Health Freedom Defense Fund, a Wyoming-based advocacy group, filed a lawsuit challenging its legality.

In a statement, the group called the decision “a victory for fundamental American freedom and the rule of law,” and quoted its chairman, Leslie Manookian, as adding, “Unelected officials cannot do what they want our personal freedoms simply because they claim good motives and a desirable purpose.

In her decision, Judge Mizelle adopted a narrow interpretation of the authority that Congress granted the CDC to enact rules aimed at preventing the interstate spread of communicable diseases.

The law says the agency can take actions it deems “necessary” and provides a list of examples, such as “remediation.” The judge wrote that this power was limited to things like cleaning the property – without requiring people to take hygiene measures.

“If Congress heard this definition, the power given to the CDC would be breathtaking,” she wrote. “And it certainly wouldn’t be limited to modest ‘sanitation’ measures like masks.”

If the government’s broader interpretation of the agency’s powers were accurate, she added, the CDC could require companies to install air filtration systems, force people to take vaccines, or even requiring “to cough in the elbows and daily multivitamins”.

The decision joins a tangle of litigation over various mandates to curb the pandemic, most of which have focused on requirements, issued under various legal authorities, that different categories of people get vaccinated.

The results of legal challenges to these warrants have varied. For example, a Federal District Court judge in Texas blocked an administration requirement that federal workers be vaccinated, but this month an appeals court overturned that decision.

In January, the Supreme Court blocked a Biden administration executive order that required large employers to require workers to get vaccinated or undergo regular testing. But the Supreme Court has allowed military officials to consider vaccination status when deciding where service members should be posted or deployed — and on Monday it allowed the Pentagon to take disciplinary action against a reservist who refused to do so. vaccinate.

After the CDC and TSA released their guidelines Monday night, the nation’s four largest airlines — United, Delta, Southwest and American — said they were dropping their mask requirements, as did JetBlue, Alaska, Spirit and Frontier.

Amtrak also said late Monday that passengers and employees were no longer required to wear masks on its trains or at stations.

“Masks are welcome and remain an important preventive measure against Covid-19,” said agency spokeswoman Kimberly Woods. “Anyone who needs or chooses to wear one is encouraged to do so.”

Within hours of the ruling, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority said it would keep its mask mandate in place. However, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in the District of Columbia and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in Philadelphia said masks would be optional for passengers and employees.

President Trump nominated Justice Mizelle to the bench in November 2020, after losing re-election. A former clerk to Judge Clarence Thomas, she was 33 at the time, making her the youngest person Mr Trump had appointed to serve as a judge for life. The American Bar Association declared her unqualified due to her lack of experience, but Republican senators upheld her in a party vote.

Lawrence Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown University, said the Biden administration should appeal the decision if it wants the term to continue. He also defended the agency’s authority to issue the mask requirement.

“If there was ever a case where the CDC has the power to act, the classic case is to prevent interstate transmission of a dangerous infectious disease,” he said.

Passengers at La Guardia Airport on Monday had mixed reactions to the decision.

Patricia and Brendan Kennedy, who had just arrived on a Delta flight from Orlando, said the flight crew reminded everyone to wear a mask on board.

Both said they would be happy to no longer have to wear masks at airports, but were split on whether they wanted the requirement to stay on planes.

Mrs. Kennedy said it helped her get on the plane. Mr Kennedy said he was ready to end mask rules.

“I wish all of this would go away,” he said.

At Terminal B, United employees checking passengers in all wore masks. A counter agent was surprised to learn that his employer no longer requires passengers to wear face coverings. This had not yet been communicated to her, she said.

Some in the airline industry greeted Judge Mizelle’s decision with relief.

David Neeleman, who founded several airlines including JetBlue Airways and Breeze Airways, which began flying last year, said he welcomed the end of a mask mandate for passengers. Breeze crew members, of which Mr Neeleman is chief executive, have been frustrated with having to watch passengers, creating unnecessary tension in flight, he said.

“If the government can decide that they can have the State of the Union address without a mask, then we should definitely be able to let people have that choice on a plane,” he said.

In her ruling, Judge Mizelle also faulted the agency for issuing the warrant under emergency procedures without delaying public comment – ​​dismissing the idea that there was no time for it since the pandemic was then already a year old.

“The CDC issued the warrant in February 2021, nearly two weeks after the president called for a warrant, 11 months after the president declared Covid-19 a national emergency, and nearly 13 months since the secretary at Health and Human Services has declared a public health emergency,” she noted. “This story suggests that the CDC itself did not find the passage of time particularly serious.”

Pointing out that 11 months had passed between the time the president declared the national emergency and the time the agency imposed the warrant, Justice Mizelle did not address the fact that there had been a change of administration during this period.

On Sunday, there were an average of more than 37,000 new cases per day, a 39% increase from two weeks ago, according to a New York Times database.

Although the figure remains well below the peak of the winter surge caused by a variant of Omicron, experts believe that new cases are increasingly underestimated with the rise in home testing. Also, many people vaccinated and given booster shots did not become seriously ill after contracting the Omicron variant.

The removal of the travel mask requirement at this time is “very, very concerning,” said Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at George Mason University.

“We’re definitely starting to see an upward trend in cases,” she said. ‘My concern is that we may see what has happened in the UK, where they have reduced restrictions significantly and seen a significant increase, and that will contribute to the increase in numbers.’

charlie savage reported from Washington, and Heather Murphy from New York. The report was provided by Madeleine Ngo and Noah Weiland of Washington, and Niraj Chokshi, Adel Hassan, Ana Ley and Roni Caryn Rabin from New York.

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