ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — A federal judge in Florida has voided the national mask mandate covering airplanes and other public transportation as exceeding the authority of U.S. health officials in the coronavirus pandemic.
The decision Monday by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, also said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention improperly failed to justify its decision and did not follow proper rulemaking.
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 that the 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 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 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.
The TSA put out a statement, saying they will no longer be enforcing masks on public transportation or at transportation hubs.
“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,” the statement said. “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.”
The NFTA, however, told News 4 they will continue to follow CDC guidelines regarding masks in facilities, including the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, and on buses.
“The NFTA will continue to follow CDC guidelines that recommends the use of masks in all transit facilities. We are currently reviewing the ruling and working with TSA on next steps.” NFTA Director of Public Affairs Helen Tederous said.
“I think people really understand, certainly our travelers both on planes and bus and rail you know we’re all weary right? We’ve all had a lot and I think people are excited for the mask mandate to be lifted,” Tederous told News 4 in a Zoom interview. “But at the same time, I think there are a lot of people who still feel very comfortable wearing the mask, both on planes, and the buses and rails, so we want to be respectful of everybody.”
News 4 caught up with a flight arriving from a flight from Tampa, Fla. Monday night. One traveler spoke to us, and said he doesn’t have a problem wearing the mask if it’s required.
“It’s not a big deal either way. People are doing this all over the world,” said Bruce Boissonault from Williamsville. “Whatever the guidance is from the administration and the CDC, that’s what I’ll follow.”
Meanwhile, 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.”
Additionally, the following airlines have announced via Twitter that they will no longer be requiring masks on their flights:
The Associated Press contributed to this report.