The federal government said Monday passengers traveling on airplanes and other forms of public transportation won’t be required to wear a face mask for now after a federal judge in Florida voided the mandate.
The decision Monday by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa says the federal mask mandate exceeded the authority of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which failed to justify the order and didn’t follow proper rulemaking procedures.
The mask mandate, announced in January 2021, had been set to expire Monday. The CDC announced last week that it would extend the mandate 15 days to allow more time to study the BA.2 omicron subvariant of the coronavirus that is responsible for the majority of cases in the U.S. It was the mask mandate’s fifth extension despite repeated requests from airlines and other travel industry officials to ease restrictions.
A Biden administration official said the ruling means that, for now, the mask mandate is not in effect. Federal agencies are reviewing the decision and assessing potential next steps, the official said, but the Transportation Security Administration will not enforce the mandate at this time. The official noted that the CDC recommends that people continue to wear masks in indoor public transportation settings.
The sudden policy change has resulted in a confusing travel environment, with some companies dropping their mask mandate while others wait for clarification on the new guidance.
United, Alaska Airlines drop mask mandate
USA TODAY reached out to every major U.S. airline to check on their policies.
United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines announced that masks would be optional on domestic flights and in airports, “effective immediately.”
Meanwhile, a statement from Amtrak said its trains would continue to enforce the mask mandate.
“As we have seen with the vaccine mandates, these court decisions are subject to review on appeal. Pending further information from TSA and (the Federal Railroad Administration) about their mask mandate guidance, Amtrak’s mask mandate remains in place,” the statement reads.
At Burlington International Airport in Vermont, TSA agents working the security checkpoint said they had been reading the news on the Internet themselves, but had not yet received any official guidance, and were checking with their supervisors for an update.
Other airports, including Denver International and Chicago O’Hare International Airport, told USA TODAY that there would be no immediate changes to their masking requirements.
“We are aware of the comments from the White House. However, we are awaiting official direction from the TSA and we will continue to follow their guidance,” reads a statement from Denver International. “At this time, we strongly encourage passengers to carry a mask.”
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Ruling from a Florida judge
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.
Critics seized on the fact that states rolled back rules requiring masks in restaurants, stores and other indoor settings, yet COVID-19 cases have fallen sharply since the omicron variant peaked in mid-January.
The judge who issued the ruling was appointed to the bench by then-President Donald Trump in August 2020 and was confirmed by the Senate the following November on a 49-41 vote. Mizelle was 33, making her the youngest of Trump’s judicial appointees and one of the youngest judges in the country.
Judge Mizelle had eight years of legal experience at the time of her appointment. A majority of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee rated her as “Not Qualified” for the judgeship, pointing to “the short time she has actually practiced law and her lack of meaningful trial experience.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the judge’s ruling “disappointing” and noted that the CDC recommends passengers continue to wear masks. The CDC, the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department are all reviewing the judge’s decision, she said.
The CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment from USA TODAY.
Flyers react: Rules ‘as clear as mud’
On Twitter, travelers and their loved ones voiced confusion around the situation.
At 6:44 p.m. EST, after the federal government confirmed masks wouldn’t be required Monday Twitter user @realerinbounds recounted an experience: “nothing like being mid flight with a guy watching fox news and berating the innocent flight attendant saying he doesn’t have to wear his mask anymore.”
@realerinbounds continued that the overturn of the mask mandate is “as clear as mud.”
On a different flight from Florida at 6:43 p.m. EST, user Jeffery J Davis said that there was “a ton of drama” on board with a portion of passengers refusing to wear masks.
Others shared tales of their loved ones’ travel experiences amid the fluidity of the policy change.
Brittnee Taylor Newman wrote on Twitter that after the White House confirmed mask-wearing wouldn’t be enforced Monday night that “the Southwest gate agent for my husband’s flight just announced, ‘Don’t even bother trying to get on this plane if you’re not wearing a mask.’ “
She called it “a bizarre turn of events” for travelers.
Other users attempted to reach out to airlines on the social media platform seeking clarity.
“@SouthwestAir what is the mask requirement on flights?” Jessica Smith asked in a tweet.
Flight Attendants Union: New rules will take time
Airline mask requirement timeline
April 2020: United, Frontier add mask requirement for flight attendants, and others soon follow.
May 2020: JetBlue Airways becomes first U.S. airline to require masks for passengers, a policy quickly matched by other airlines.
Jan. 2021: President Joe Biden announces federal mask mandate for travel with an initial expiration date of May 11. Airlines, unions and consumer advocates called for a mandate since the early months of the coronavirus pandemic but found no support from President Donald Trump’s administration.
April 2021: Mandate is extended through Sept. 13.
August 2021: Mandate is extended through Jan. 18 because of the delta variant of the coronavirus.
Dec 2021: Mandate is extended through March 18 because of the omicron variant.
March 2022: Mandate is extended through April 18.
April 2022: Mandate is extended through May 3.
Contributing: Trevor Hughes, Dawn Gilbertson, Eve Chen, USA TODAY; Curt Anderson, Associated Press