Federal judge voids mask mandate for planes, other travel

  • Comments
  • Print

A federal judge in Florida struck down a national mask mandate on airplanes and mass transit Monday, and airlines and airports swiftly began repealing their requirements that passengers wear face coverings.

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

The major airlines switched to a mask optional policy, with some eliciting cheers from passengers when the changes were announced over loudspeakers. The Transportation Security Administration said Monday night that it would it will no longer enforce the mask requirement, and airports in Houston and Dallas almost immediately did away with their mandates after the TSA announcement.

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

Sleepy passengers on a Delta Air Lines flight between Atlanta and Barcelona, Spain, cheered and applauded when a flight attendant announced the news mid-flight over the ocean.

“No one’s any happier than we are,” the attendant says in a video posted by Dillon Thomas, a CBS Denver reporter, who was on the flight. She added that people who wanted to keep on their masks were encouraged to do so.

“But we’re ready to give ém up,” she added. “So thank you and happy unmasking day!”

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

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 check with airlines for updates about travel requirements.

The mask requirement covered airlines, airports, mass transit and taxis, and was the biggest vestige of pandemic restrictions that were once the norm across the country.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, also said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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 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 ruling means that for now the mask order “is not in effect at this time.”

“This is obviously a disappointing decision,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “The CDC is recommending wearing a mask on public transit.”

The CDC had 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 now responsible for the vast majority of cases in the U.S.

In New York, Metropolitan Transportation Authority communications director Tim Minton said the system was “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.

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

“While this means that 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 to do so, as the CDC continues to strongly recommend wearing a mask on public transit,” United said.

Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines also made similar announcements.

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.”

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.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

19 thoughts on “Federal judge voids mask mandate for planes, other travel

    1. This was a ruling in a federal district court, with the judge dictating it would apply nationwide. I was under the impression that a ruling in district court is only enforceable within the district where the ruling was made and only SCOTUS has the power of applying rulings nationwide. Am I missing something?

    2. Brent – typically/ideally that’s true, but not exclusively. Some fundamentals about this issue preclude that jurisdictional limit, as we are talking about interstate commerce itself, can’t just remove enforcement in the district itself. And bigger picture, if the govt is exceeding its authority, the proper remedy is to enjoin any enforcement; every issue of govt overreach shouldnt have to go up to SCOTUS everytime for broad relief.

    3. No one is saying you can’t wear your mask and Joe B, however the rest of us are tired of doing it. If you’re still that afraid then just don’t fly

  1. Joe B – Feel free to triple mask, wear your Tyvex, and take all your precautions on your next flight. Or, you don’t have to fly at all. It’s a free country. Thankful for a judicial system that upholds our liberties and protects us from the authoritarian heavy hand of a corrupt administration and its politically charged health policies.

    The shamdemic is officially over.

    1. Ryan H. – In making the ruling, she substituted her judgment for that of Congress. The correct ruling would have been to leave the CDC mask order in place, question whether the CDC had the authority to impose it, but say it is a matter more appropriately decided by the Congress and its representatives which are closest to the people affected. For a single judge on a lower court to rule as she did is not the way a republic is supposed to be governed.

    2. Brent – based on my skimming of the ruling, what you described is almost the opposite of what happened: she substituted Congress’s lack of authority granted, with the govt’s presumption of authority.

      No matter if you personally support the mandate/masking, etc., this does support the parts of the Constitution that limits governmental authority over the decisions of individuals.

    3. Scott B. – The fact that Congress did not specifically grant authority to the CDC to mandate masks (or any other certain actions in a public health situation) is a problem that needs to be rectified – and it should be Congress, not a judge in a lower court, to decide how to proceed. No one elected the judge, but an entire country cast ballots for the election of a president, and an entire country cast ballots to elect representatives and senators to Congress. The elected public officials should determine what powers the unelected are allowed. Sadly I doubt anyone will look back on all of the pandemic actions and do anything to make sure the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

    4. Happy Unmasking Day Ryan H…a fine day for America indeed!

      This is a day for celebration! Joe B. always with an excuse ready to go…

      As many have shown, no peer reviewed prospective blinded data to support the masking or support forced immunization.

      Career politicians in a corrupt Congress should never have power to strip individual liberties.
      (Their approval rating confirms the constituents of the USA don’t want them making any important decisions anyway…)

      If only these career bureaucrats knew the power of Kilroy’s heavy pours in fighting variants, Indiana would be a safer place.

    5. Joe thinks the judge should have ordered the TSA to wind down mask orders at the earliest opportunity, not to exceed some minimal period of time (3-5 days).

      That would have been the adult way of doing it. That’s the way a government run by adults operates, not by the intellectual children that claim they are “constitutional conservatives” or other such nonsense. Last I checked, this isn’t Lord of the Flies.

      The idea that this is such an emergency that immediate lifting is the only option? If that’s the nonsense that the Federalist Society propagates maybe I should consider them a terrorist organization.

    6. By the way, Ryan, congrats on missing my point as it sailed over your head.

      Authoritarian government? Like the type that believes in coups and throwing out election results? You’re projecting again like most Republicans do.

  2. LOL, 1 ruling that didn’t go the Democrats way and Joe is claiming Court Packing! and Brent wants to defer to the wisdom of Congress…. This from a political party that just installed a Supreme based solely on skin color and gender.
    The “snap decision” is an ongoing issue for 2 years of health officials overstepping their authority.
    That said, Brent, I do like your idea. Take a vote tomorrow. No amendments or any pork, just Mask Mandate, yes or no? Make every member of Congress show their colors 6 months before the mid-terms. Pretty sure the majority of Democrats would be sick that day and have to abstain…

    1. Chuck W. – The issue isn’t whether someone supports or opposes mask mandates. It is whether federal public health experts appointed by duly elected officials should or should not have the power to decree certain actions in response to national catastrophes such as an infectious diseases. The libertarian response that “to each his own” in such environments can have potentially tragic results that might otherwise be prevented.

    2. I am not claiming anything. She got picked and rammed through by McConnell despite not being qualified. McConnell has packed the federal courts after blocking many of Obama’s nominees so he can spare us with his concerns.

      So the next time someone tries to tell you about the dangers of Justice Jackson, just remember that the federal bench is apparently where Republicans should learn on the job.

      Mizelle is far from the only one. Go look up Indianapolis’ own Sarah Martin Pitlyk. Couldn’t even get unanimous Republican support for her nomination, still got a lifetime federal appointment despite never trying a case or even taking a deposition.

    3. Chuck, where was your outrage when Trump and Ronald Reagan pledged to nominate a woman before beginning the vetting process? Is it the fact that she’s Black that bothers you so much?

    4. Brent – I generally agree with you, Congress has the ability to weigh-in if it so chooses. The judge only weighs in when Congress hasn’t to adjudicate what the laws currently say, in this case what ability Congress has given govt authorities in these circumstances.

      Congress’s inaction in this particular area is itself a statement that there isn’t enough of an imperitive in circumstances to change the legal status quo. The judicial branch has given an opinion where that status quo is.

      The branches worked as designed! Great system of governance, in stark contrast to many others over the last few years.

  3. The Democrats are just as guilty of running to coutrs that favor them and filing lawsuits. Most times they’re filed in California or New York because they feel that they’ll get a favorable ruling. And there have been plenty of examples were it has applied nationwide.