Florida judge strikes down mask mandate on planes and other US travel

Curt Anderson, The Associated Press

Posted Monday, April 18, 2022 7:17 pm EDT

Last Updated Monday, April 18, 2022 11:46 PM EDT

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — A federal judge in Florida on Monday struck down a national mask-wearing mandate on airplanes and public transportation, and airlines and airports quickly began rolling back their requirements that passengers wear face coverings.

The judge’s decision freed up airlines, airports and public transportation systems to make their own decisions about mask requirements, resulting in a mix of responses.

Major airlines switched to an optional mask policy, with some drawing cheers from passengers when the changes were announced over loudspeakers. The Transportation Security Administration said late Monday that it would no longer enforce the mask requirement, and airports in Houston and Dallas dropped their mandates almost immediately after the TSA announcement.

Los Angeles International Airport, the world’s fifth largest by passenger volume, also gave up its mandate, but the Centers for Disease Control continued to recommend the use of masks in transportation “and I think that’s good advice.” LAX spokesman Heath Montgomery said.

Sleeping passengers on a Delta Air Lines flight between Atlanta and Barcelona, ​​Spain, cheered and clapped as a flight attendant announced the news mid-flight over the ocean.

“No one is happier than us,” the attendant says in a video posted by Dillon Thomas, a reporter for CBS Denver, who was on the flight. He added that he encouraged people who wanted to keep their masks to do so.

“But we are ready to deliver them,” he added. “So thanks and happy unmasking day!”

New York City’s public transportation system planned to keep its mask requirement. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority said it would make masks optional for riders on its buses and trains.

The Flight Attendants Association, the nation’s largest cabin crew union, has recently taken a neutral position on the mask rule because its members are divided on the issue. On Monday, the president of the union called for calm on planes and airports.

“The last thing we need for frontline workers or commuters today is confusion and chaos,” said union leader Sara Nelson.

Nelson said it takes 24 to 48 hours for airlines to implement new procedures and inform employees about them. She said passengers should check with airlines for updates on travel requirements.

The mask requirement covered airlines, airports, public transportation and taxis, and was the biggest holdover from the pandemic restrictions that were once the norm across the country.

The decision by US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, also said the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not justify its decision and did not follow through. proper regulatory procedures that left it fatally flawed.

In her 59-page ruling, Mizelle said the only remedy was to strike down the rule entirely nationwide because it would be impossible for the limited group of people who objected in the lawsuit to end it.

The judge said “a limited remedy would be no remedy at all” and the courts have full authority to make a decision like this, even if the CDC’s goals in fighting the virus are laudable.

The Justice Department declined to comment when asked if it would seek an emergency stay to block the judge’s order. The CDC also declined to comment.

The White House said the court’s ruling means that, for now, the mask order is “not in effect at this time.”

“Obviously, this is a disappointing decision,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “The CDC recommends wearing a mask on public transportation.”

The CDC had recently extended the mask mandate, which was due to expire on Monday, until May 3 to allow more time to study the omicron BA.2 subvariant of the coronavirus now responsible for the vast majority of cases in the US.

In New York, Metropolitan Transportation Authority communications director Tim Minton said the system “continued to follow CDC guidelines and will review the Florida court order.”

The MTA operates New York City buses and subways, as well as two commuter rail lines. Face coverings have been mandatory on all trains and buses since the beginning of the pandemic.

United Airlines said in a statement that, effective immediately, masks will no longer be required on domestic or certain international flights.

“While this means our employees are no longer required to wear a mask, and no longer have to enforce a mask requirement for most of the flying public, they will be able to wear masks if they choose, as the CDC continues. to strongly recommend wearing a mask on public transport,” United said.

Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines also made similar announcements.

The federal mask requirement for travelers was the subject of months of lobbying by airlines, which tried to eliminate 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 end the term.

Critics have seized on the fact that states have rolled back rules requiring masks to be worn in restaurants, stores and other indoor settings, yet cases of COVID-19 have dropped dramatically since the omicron variant hit its stride. maximum in mid-January.

There have been a number of violent incidents on planes that have been largely attributed to disputes over mask 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 people to submit to the administration medical products, procedures and devices against their will. .”

Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who was not directly involved in the case but has fought many government requirements on the coronavirus, praised the ruling in a statement on Twitter.

“It’s great to see a federal judge in Florida follow the law and reject Biden’s carry mask mandate. Airline employees and passengers alike deserve to see this misery end,” DeSantis tweeted.

Associated Press writers David Koenig in Dallas, Michael Balsamo and Will Weissert in Washington, and Karen Matthews in New York contributed to this report.


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