A federal judge in Florda has just voided the pandemic’s longest standing public health measure. The CDC requires passengers on public trains, buses, subways, ferries and airplanes to wear face masks at all times to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, but U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle of the Middle District of Florida ruled that the mandate exceeds the CDC’s authority.
Federal officials recently extended the mask mandate for public transportation until May 3, but Judge Mizelle’s ruling has thrown that into doubt.
She based her decision on the Public Health Service Act, a 1944 law that allows the government to impose health guidelines to improve “sanitation.” But Mizelle found that the CDC’s reasoning for imposing the guideline falls short of the sanitation threshold.
“Wearing a mask cleans nothing. At most, it traps virus droplets. But it neither ‘sanitizes’ the person wearing the mask nor ‘sanitizes’ the conveyance,” Mizelle wrote.
Wearing masks in public spaces has become a contentious issue for many Americans. Flight attendants and other public transportation officers are usually left to deal with unruly passengers that refuse to comply with the guidelines.
The case was filed on behalf of the Health Freedom Defense Fund, which is representing several airline passengers, including Sarah Pope and Ana Daza, who said that wearing masks adds to their anxiety.
Mizelle ruled on behalf of the passengers and called the mask mandate “arbitrary and capricious.”
Daza said her anxiety should qualify as a medical exemption to the mask rule. Pope said that she experienced “constricted breathing from wearing a mask,” which only exacerbated her panic attacks.
The decision comes as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise across the country and many experts believe we are witnessing the beginning of another surge.
“This is obviously a disappointing decision,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “The CDC continues recommending wearing a mask on public transit.”
As of April 14, the seven-day rolling average for daily new cases rose to 39,521, up from 30,724 two weeks earlier, according to data from Johns Hopkins collected by The Associated Press.
Neither the White House nor the CDC would comment on where the case goes from here.
Psaki added that the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Transportation Security Authority, is reviewing the decision and that the Justice Department will “make any determinations about litigation,” such as appeal.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines, addressed how the ruling could affect employees in the travel industry. In a statement, she urged “calm and consistency in the airports and on planes.”
“The last thing we need for workers on the frontlines or passengers traveling today is confusion and chaos,” she said. “Traveling can be stressful enough and safety comes first with respect for everyone utilizing collective modes of transportation.”
Nelson said airlines will need time to adjust their operations accordingly.
“In aviation operations, it is impossible to simply flip a switch from one minute to the next. It takes a minimum of 24-48 hours to implement new procedures and communicate this throughout the entire network,” she said.
The Justic Department defended the CDC’s authority to implement the mandate last month. Lawyers said the plaintiffs had relied on an “unduly narrow and grammatically incorrect” interpretation of the public health law. They added that Congress had authorized health officials to make and enforce regulations “necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases” from outside the country, or within it, using “sanitation” and “other measures.”
The Supreme Court sided in favor of the public transportation mask mandate in a case last year. The court ruled that the guidelines help limit the interstate spread of disease “by identifying, isolating, and destroying the disease itself.”
The Biden administration is facing increasing pressure to get rid of the public transportation mask mandate. Last month, executives from American, United and Delta sent a letter to the president urging him to end pandemic-related travel policies, including the mask mandate.
The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) released a statement following the announcement.
“We urge everyone to practice patience, remain calm, and to continue to follow crewmember instructions. And we remind passengers that it is legally required to follow crewmember instructions, and that disruptive behavior has serious consequences as it puts everyone at risk,” the union said. “Our workspace is your travel space. Let’s get where we’re going, together.”