Federal judge strikes down mask mandate on planes and public transit

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WASHINGTON — A federal judge in Florida struck down the federal mask requirement on planes, trains, buses and other public transportation on Monday, less than a week after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended it until to May 3.

In a 59-page ruling, Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, appointed by former President Donald J. Trump, overturned the mandate — which also applies to airports, train stations and other transportation hubs — nationwide for several grounds, including deciding that the agency had exceeded its legal authority under the Public Health Services Act of 1944.

The Justice Department had no immediate comment on whether the Biden administration would appeal — and, if so, whether it would ask Judge Mizelle or an appeals court to stay its ruling. pending any further litigation so that the rule can continue to be applied. A CDC spokeswoman declined to comment.

It was unclear whether airlines would continue to require passengers to wear masks without the rule. But last month, leaders of major airlines — including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines — called on the Biden administration to let the mask mandate on planes and at airports expire in a joint letter.

Yet the decision also comes at a time when new coronavirus cases are rising sharply again. The CDC last week extended the mask rule through May 3, citing a desire to assess the potential severity of the Omicron subvariant known as BA.2, which has recently become the dominant version among new US cases. On Monday, the city of Philadelphia reinstated a mask mandate in response, becoming the first major city to do so.

On Monday afternoon, Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing around 50,000 workers at 20 airlines, said in a statement that she was awaiting “more legal analysis on what this means. ” and that it takes a minimum of 24 to 48 hours to set up and communicate the new procedures.

“We urge everyone to be patient, to remain calm and to continue to follow the instructions of crew members,” she said. “And we remind passengers that it is legally obligated to follow the instructions of crew members and that disruptive behavior has serious consequences because it puts everyone at risk.”

Tim Minton, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees New York’s subways and some of the commuter trains entering the city, said Monday, “We continue to follow CDC guidance and will review the order of the Florida court.

President Biden had called on the CDC to issue a mask mandate for travelers shortly after his inauguration, and the agency did so on February 2, 2021. He extended that mandate several times, and in July, the Health Freedom Defense Fund, a Wyoming-based advocacy group, filed a lawsuit challenging its legality.

Efforts to reach the group for comment on Monday were not immediately successful. But Judge Mizelle largely agreed with his arguments, ruling that the agency had overstepped the power Congress had granted it to prescribe public health measures like “disinfection,” saying the power was limited to cleaning property – n forcing people to take hygiene measures.

“If Congress heard this definition, the power given to the CDC would be breathtaking,” she wrote. “And it certainly wouldn’t be limited to modest ‘sanitation’ measures like masks.”

If the government’s interpretation of the agency’s powers were accurate, she added, the CDC could require companies to install air filtration systems, force people to get vaccinated, or even requiring “a cough into your elbows and a daily multivitamin.”

President Donald J. Trump nominated Justice Mizelle to the bench in November 2021, after losing re-election. A former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas, she was 33 at the time, making her the youngest person appointed by Mr Trump to serve as a judge for life; the American Bar Association declared her unqualified due to her lack of experience, but she was confirmed in a party vote.

Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, said the Biden administration should appeal the decision if it wants the term to continue. He also defended the agency’s authority to issue the mask requirement.

“If there was ever a case where the CDC has the power to act, the classic case is to prevent interstate transmission of a dangerous infectious disease,” he said.

Judge Mizelle also faulted the agency for issuing the warrant under ’emergency’ procedures without delaying public comment on the proposal – dismissing the idea that there was no time for this since the pandemic was then already a year old.

“The CDC issued the warrant in February 2021, nearly two weeks after the president called for a warrant, 11 months after the president declared Covid-19 a national emergency, and nearly 13 months since the secretary at Health and Human Services has declared a public health emergency,” she noted. “This story suggests that the CDC itself did not find the passage of time particularly serious.”

Pointing out that 11 months had passed since “the president” declared a state of emergency, Judge Mizelle did not address the fact that another administration had just taken office.

On Sunday, there were an average of more than 37,000 new cases per day, a 39% increase from two weeks ago, according to a New York Times database. Although the figure remains well below the peak of the winter surge caused by the Omicron variant, experts believe that new cases are increasingly underestimated with the rise in home testing.

On Sunday, Dr. Ashish K. Jha, the White House’s new Covid-19 response coordinator, said the CDC had “made it very clear that it needed 15 days to assess the impact of BA.2 on hospitalizations, deaths, to see if there is a substantial increase in serious illnesses.

“I expect that we’ll put that data together and in a few weeks we’ll make a more sustainable decision,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Judge Mizelle had personal ties to the Trump administration. She is married to Chad Mizelle, who was a lawyer in the Trump White House. In 2019, the White House purged most top leaders from the Department of Homeland Security. As part of the shakeup, Mizelle was named acting general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security, where he endorsed a restrictive new policy making it harder for migrants to gain asylum.

Noah Weiland, Ana Ley and Adel Hassan contributed report.

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