ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A federal judge in Florida on Monday voided the national mask mandate covering airlines and other public transportation as exceeding the authority of U.S. health officials in their response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The mandate, recently extended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, covered a vast array of transportation, from airplanes and trains to city subways and ride-sharing vehicles such as Uber.
Amid uncertainty over the ruling’s immediate fallout, nothing had changed Monday for the Regional Transportation District and Denver International Airport — mask rules were still in place aboard buses and trains and inside the airport. Both said they were waiting for more clarity from federal officials. Several airlines also planned to keep mask rules in place onboard planes.
“RTD is awaiting further guidance from the Transportation Security Administration regarding the impacts of the Florida judge’s recent ruling and will adhere to the federal mask mandate until further notice and/or guidance from the federal government,” RTD spokeswoman Laurie Huff wrote in an email.
Compliance with mask rules has flagged in recent months as mandates have been lifted for other public places. During a Denver Post reporter’s ride on W-Line trains last week, roughly a third of riders wore masks.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, also said the CDC improperly failed to justify its decision and did not follow proper rulemaking procedures that left it fatally flawed.
In her 59-page ruling, Mizelle said the only remedy was to vacate the rule entirely across the country because it would be impossible to end it for the limited group of people who objected in the lawsuit.
The judge said “a limited remedy would be no remedy at all” and courts have full authority to make a decision such as this — even if the goals of the CDC in fighting the virus are laudable.
“Because our system does not permit agencies to act unlawfully even in pursuit of desirable ends, the court declares unlawful and vacates the mask mandate,” she wrote.
The Justice Department declined to comment Monday when asked if the government planned to appeal the ruling. The CDC also declined to comment.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that federal agencies were still assessing the court decision Monday afternoon.
“This is obviously a disappointing decision,” Psaki said, “The CDC is recommending wearing a mask on public transit.”
Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was not directly involved in the case but has battled against many government coronavirus requirements, praised the ruling in a statement on Twitter.
“Great to see a federal judge in Florida follow the law and reject the Biden transportation mask mandate. Both airline employees and passengers deserve to have this misery end,” DeSantis tweeted.
The CDC recently extended the mask mandate, which was set to expire Monday, until May 3 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.
The mandate covered all types of transportation in the U.S. as well as requiring masks in any transportation hub, such as an airport, seaport or bus terminal. It wasn’t immediately clear Monday whether or not some of these entities would continue to require masks on their own.
United Airlines told employees that the mask rule remains in effect while federal officials decide how to respond to the judge’s ruling. Other airlines and their trade group, Airlines for America, did not immediately respond to requests for comment after the ruling was released.
The Association of Flight Attendants, the nation’s largest union of cabin crews, has recently taken a neutral position on the mask rule because its members are divided about the issue. On Monday, the union’s president appealed for calm on planes and in airports.
“The last thing we need for workers on the frontlines or passengers traveling today is confusion and chaos,” union leader Sara Nelson said.
Nelson said it takes airlines 24 to 48 hours to put new procedures in place and tell employees about them. She said passengers should to check with airlines for updates about travel requirements.
In New York, Metropolitan Transportation Authority communications director Tim Minton said, “We are continuing to follow CDC guidelines and will review the Florida court order.”
The MTA operates New York City buses and subway trains as well as two commuter rail lines. Face coverings have been mandatory on all trains and buses since early in the pandemic.
The federal 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.
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.
There have been a series of violent incidents on aircraft that have mainly been attributed to disputes over the mask-wearing requirements.
The lawsuit was filed in July 2021 by two plaintiffs and the Health Freedom Defense Fund, described in the judge’s order as a nonprofit group that “opposes laws and regulations that force individuals to submit to the administration of medical products, procedures and devices against their will.”
Denver Post reporter Jon Murray contributed to this story. Associated Press writers David Koenig in Dallas, Michael Balsamo and Will Weissert in Washington, and Karen Matthews in New York contributed to this story.
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