Mask still needed to fly or ride after judge’s ruling?


Face mask foes won a key victory Monday when a federal judge in Florida ruled the national COVID-19 mask mandate covering planes, trains, buses and other public transportation exceeded U.S. health officials’ authority.

By Monday evening, the country’s largest airlines — Southwest, United, Delta and Alaska — had all declared masks optional on their flights, but travelers shouldn’t toss that KN95 in the trash just yet. Bay Area airports and transit agencies were still reacting to the ruling and waiting for more guidance from federal officials.

Q. What happened with the mask requirement Monday?

A. Back in July 2021, a nonprofit called the Health Freedom Defense Fund, described as opposing “laws and regulations that force individuals to submit to the administration of medical products, procedures and devices against their will,” sued the federal government to overturn the mask requirement on public transportation.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa said in a 59-page ruling that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed to justify the requirement and did not follow proper rulemaking.

The judge added that “a limited remedy would be no remedy at all,” effectively voiding 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.

Q. So that means we now can saunter into SFO and onto our flights without masks, right?

A. Not quite. Airport and transit operators were waiting for word from the Transportation Security Administration.

By late Monday evening, the TSA issued a statement saying it would no longer be enforcing the mask rule effective immediately. But it wasn’t clear local transit officials had taken action to rescind the rule Monday night. So stay tuned.

Despite the capitulation, the TSA said, “CDC continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings at this time.”

Q. Are we done with masks requirements on planes for good?

A. Not necessarily. The government could appeal the ruling and seek an injunction barring its enforcement pending the outcome of the case. But Justice Department spokeswoman Danielle Blevins said Monday, “We’re reviewing the decision and going to decline any further comment.”

Q. Wasn’t the rule set to expire soon anyway?

A. Possibly. The rule was to originally set to end March 18, but the CDC has extended it twice, most recently to May 3, to allow time to monitor rising COVID-19 cases from the omicron subvariant BA.2 and to devise a more flexible requirement. It’s not clear whether the CDC intended to allow the rule to expire entirely at that time; it could also opt for a more limited or conditional requirement that might be tied to case or hospitalization rates.

Q. Who is this judge who issued the ruling?

A. Judge Mizelle, of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, earned her law degree from the University of Florida Levin College of Law in 2012, worked as a federal prosecutor, clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and was in private practice handling complex civil and criminal litigation at Jones Day before she was nominated to the court by President Donald Trump.

Q. So what are the airlines saying?

A. The airlines had lobbied the Biden administration to rescind the rule, arguing that aircraft air filtration systems make them low risk and noting that mask requirements have vanished elsewhere from the public sphere.

By Monday evening, Alaska, Southwest, Delta and United indicated they were treating masks as optional. There were reports of pilots announcing the change on in-flight intercoms, eliciting both cheers and jeers.

Q. How about airports?

A. Expect updates Tuesday. Doug Yakel, spokesman for San Francisco International Airport, said Monday afternoon that “until we receive updated federal guidance, face masks are still required for all individuals, including workers and members of the public, when entering or when located in the indoor areas of SFO.”

At Mineta San Jose International Airport, spokeswoman Keonis Taylor said that “as a procedural matter, we are still required to follow TSA guidance, and will do so until TSA guidance for airports changes.”

Oakland International Airport spokeswoman Kaley Skantz said they are “waiting for direction from the TSA” and “will update our passengers as soon as we learn more.”

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