A federal judge in Florida has struck down Joe Biden’s national mask mandate covering airplanes, airports and other public transportation, prompting the White House to announce the rule would not be enforced while federal agencies decide how to respond to the judge’s order.
The ruling appeared to free operators to make their own decisions about mask requirements, with several airlines announcing they would drop mandates, but other transport networks including the New York City subway planning to keep them in place.
The mandate was overturned on Monday by the US district judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa, who judged the rule as exceeding the authority of US health officials in the coronavirus pandemic.
She added that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had failed to justify its decision and did not follow proper rule-making procedures.
In her 59-page ruling, Mizelle said the only remedy was to vacate the rule entirely because it would be impossible to end it for the limited group who objected to it in the lawsuit.
The judge said: “A limited remedy would be no remedy at all.” She added that the courts had full authority to make a decision such as this – even if the goals of the CDC in fighting the virus were 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 White House later said the court ruling meant that, for now, the mask order “is not in effect” and would not be enforced by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Mizelle is an appointee of Donald Trump. She was rated “not qualified” to serve as a federal judge by the American Bar Association at the time she was nominated. She was confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate in a party-line vote.
Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, who was not involved in the litigation but has fought against many Covid-related restrictions, tweeted: “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.”
The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said it was “obviously a disappointing decision” and that the CDC “continues recommending wearing a mask on public transit”.
The Department of Justice declined to comment on Monday when asked if the government planned to appeal the ruling.
The CDC had recently extended the transportation mask mandate, which was set to expire on 3 May, to allow more time to study the Covid-19 BA.2 Omicron subvariant that is now responsible for the vast majority of US cases.
Well-fitted, high-quality masks help control Covid-19 transmission by preventing people from spreading virus-laden droplets or inhaling those expelled by others.
Several airlines immediately said they would be making masks optional for travelers. Photograph: Charlie Riedel/AP
The lawsuit was filed in July 2021 by two plaintiffs and the Health Freedom Defense Fund, a group that has initiated lawsuits against vaccine and mask mandates in several school districts and municipalities.
The group’s leader, Leslie Manookian, has appeared at anti-vaccine and anti-mask protests and produced a film that purported to examine the link between vaccines and autism. Such a link has been debunked by an authoritative study, the original paper that argued such an association may exist was retracted as fraudulent, and the author of the paper was stripped of his medical license.
Airlines and Republican members of Congress sought to kill mask mandates on public transportation. Airlines argued air filtration on modern planes made Covid-19 transmission unlikely.
Airplanes have also been the scene of a number of violent incidents during the pandemic. Most have been attributed to disputes touched off by mask-wearing requirements.
Some air carriers, including Alaska Airlines, Delta and United, welcomed the move on Monday by saying that masks for travelers would now be optional.
“While we are glad this means many of us get to see your smiling faces, we understand some might have mixed feelings,” an Alaska representative told the Associated Press. “Please remember to be kind to one another and that wearing a mask while traveling is still an option.”
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,” the union leader, Sara Nelson, said.
Nelson said it took 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.
In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority communications director, Tim Minton, said: “We are continuing to follow CDC guidelines and will review the Florida court order.”
Republican critics of the mandate seized on the fact that cases dropped sharply after Omicron cases peaked in January, and states have since rolled back mask requirements in stores, restaurants and other indoor settings. They claimed that made requirements in travel hubs such as airports inconsistent.
Since the beginning of April, cases have increased slightly but hospitalizations have remained steady. About 82% of all people older than five have received a Covid-19 vaccine dose, according to the CDC.