On Monday, April 18, 2022, a Florida federal judge held that the federal mask mandate for public transportation was unlawful. In the Order accompanying her decision, Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle ruled that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acted outside of its authority when it required all U.S. travelers to wear a face mask on various forms of public transportation, including commercial aircraft.
The ruling stems from litigation brought by the Health Freedom Defense Fund Inc., a group whose primary purpose is to challenge mandatory workplace vaccine policies and other COVID-19 related measures. The suit challenged the Biden administration’s mask requirements, claiming they constituted an overreach of the CDC’s authority. Judge Kimball Mizelle granted summary judgment to the Health Freedom Defense Fund, finding that the CDC failed to justify its decision and did not follow proper rule-making. Judge Mizelle went so far to suggest that the government’s implementation of the mandate -- in which non-complying travelers are "forcibly removed from their airplane seats, denied board at the bus steps, and turned away at the train station doors" -- was akin to "detention and quarantine," which are not contemplated in the section of the law in question.
The decision collides with the CDC’s most recent extension of the federal mask mandate. Just last week, the CDC extended the mandate for an additional two weeks (from April 18 to May 3) to allow 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. While Judge Mizelle acknowledged the CDC’s policy determination that requiring masks will limit COVID-19 transmission and decrease the illness and death COVID-19 occasions, that finding by itself, according to the Judge, is not sufficient to establish good cause for continuing the mandate. The Judge’s decision does not discuss the newest variant.
The Judge’s decision effectively vacates the temporary federal requirement for travelers to wear masks on airplanes, however, it is not clear how quickly the ruling will be implemented, or whether the Justice Department plans to appeal the ruling. The Transportation and Security Administration (TSA) issued a formal statement on Monday, April 18, 2022 stating “Due to today’s court ruling, effective immediately, TSA will no longer enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs. TSA will also rescind the new Security Directives that were scheduled to take effect tomorrow. CDC continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings at this time.” Additional, formal guidance from the TSA is expected.
A majority of U.S. airlines have stopped requiring travelers and/or employees to wear face masks on domestic and some international flights, depending on current guidelines in the country of destination. Actions and statements by the TSA and the Biden Administration in the days ahead should provide more clarity for how the airlines should adapt their policies, and when.
House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has since stated “we’re continuing to recommend that people wear masks” while the administration reviews the ruling and considers its legal options. The Association of Flight Attendants urged "calm and consistency in the airports and on planes” and is urging “clear communication so that Flight Attendants and other frontline workers are not subject to more violence created by uncertainty and confusion.” And members of Congress seem to be doing what they do best – politicizing the ruling.