A federal judge in Florida voided the national mask mandate covering airplanes and other public transportation, but it is unclear what the ruling means for travelers in the near term.
The decision Monday by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa says the mandate exceeded the authority of U.S. health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by failing to justify the decision and not following proper rulemaking.
The mask mandate, originally announced in January 2021, had been set to expire Monday. The CDC announced last week that it would extend the mandate 15 days to allow more time to study the BA.2 omicron subvariant of the coronavirus that is now responsible for the vast majority of cases in the U.S. It was the mask mandate’s fifth extension and came despite repeated requests from airlines and other travel industry officials to ease restrictions.
The mask requirement for travelers was the target of months of lobbying from the airlines, which sought to kill it. The carriers argued that effective air filters on modern planes make transmission of the virus during a flight highly unlikely. Republicans in Congress also fought to kill the mandate.
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Critics have seized on the fact that states have rolled back rules requiring masks in restaurants, stores and other indoor settings, and yet COVID-19 cases have fallen sharply since the omicron variant peaked in mid-January.
The CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment from USA TODAY.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the ruling “disappointing” and noted that the CDC recommends passengers continue to wear masks. The CDC and the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department are all reviewing the judge’s decision, she said.
A Monday statement from the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents nearly 50,000 Flight Attendants at 17 airlines, acknowledges that it’s unclear what the judge’s decision means for travelers today and urges “calm and consistency” in airports and on planes.
“In aviation operations, it is impossible to simply flip a switch from one minute to the next. It takes a minimum of 24-48 hours to implement new procedures and communicate this throughout the entire network,” AFA President Sara Nelson said in the statement. “Policies and procedures must be updated and thoroughly communicated to hundreds of thousands of employees, along with millions of travelers. Announcements and signage, electronic and physical must be updated.”
Nelson encourages travelers to check for updates from airlines for specific travel requirements and to follow crewmember instructions. AFA expects more legal analysis on what the decision means and the next steps in court “soon.”
The judge who issued the ruling was appointed to the bench by then-President Donald Trump in August 2020 and was confirmed by the Senate the following November on a 49-41 vote. Mizelle was 33 at the time, making her the youngest of Trump’s judicial appointees and one of the youngest judges in the country.
Judge Mizelle had just eight years of legal experience at the time of her appointment. A majority of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee rated her as “Not Qualified” for the judgeship, pointing to “the short time she has actually practiced law and her lack of meaningful trial experience.”
Airline mask requirement timeline
April 2020: United, Frontier add mask requirement for flight attendants and others soon follow.
May 2020: JetBlue Airways becomes first U.S. airline to require masks for passengers, a policy quickly matched by other airlines.
Jan. 2021: President Joe Biden announces federal mask mandate for travel with an initial expiration date of May 11. Airlines, unions and consumer advocates had called for a mandate since the early months of the coronavirus pandemic but found no support from President Donald Trump’s administration.
April 2021: Mandate is extended through Sept. 13.
August 2021: Mandate is extended through Jan. 18 due to the Delta variant.
Dec 2021: Mandate is extended through March 18 due to the omicron variant.
March 2022: Mandate is extended through April 18.
April 2022: Mandate is extended through May 3.
Contributing: Michael Collins, Dawn Gilbertson, USA TODAY; Curt Anderson, Associated Press