TAMPA, Fla. — UPDATE (April 20, 2022): The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to appeal a Tampa-based federal judge's decision to void the federal mask mandate affecting airplanes and other forms of public transportation. Read the CDC's full statement here.
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A federal judge in Florida has voided the national mask mandate covering airplanes and other public transportation as exceeding the authority of U.S. health officials in the coronavirus pandemic.
The decision Monday by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, also said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention improperly failed to justify its decision and did not follow proper rulemaking.
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 of people who objected to it in the lawsuit.
The judge said “a limited remedy would be no remedy at all” and that the courts have full authority to make a decision such as this — even if the goals of the CDC in fighting the virus are 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 Justice Department declined to comment Monday when asked if the government planned to appeal the ruling. However, the Transportation Security Administration announced it would no longer enforce the CDC's public transportation mask rule.
On Twitter, Tampa International Airport said it would be removing its mask mandate effective immediately, making face coverings optional.
The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO (AFA) in a statement said it urges "calm and consistency in the airports and on planes" as leaders await more legal analysis and what, if any, steps are taken by the government.
"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. Policies and procedures must be updated and thoroughly communicated to hundreds of thousands of employees, along with millions of travelers," the group said, in part.
Airlines are beginning to update their policies in response to Monday's news.
"Effective immediately, masks are no longer required at United on domestic flights, select international flights (dependent upon the arrival country’s mask requirements) or at U.S. airports," United Airlines wrote in a statement. "While this means that our employees are no longer required to wear a mask – and no longer have to enforce a mask requirement for most of the flying public – they will be able to wear masks if they choose to do so, as the CDC continues to strongly recommend wearing a mask on public transit."
Delta Air Lines said masks would be optional for all passengers, crew members and employees.
"Given the unexpected nature of this announcement, please be aware that customers, airline employees and federal agency employees – such as TSA – may be receiving this information at different times," Delta wrote in a statement. "You may experience inconsistent enforcement during the next 24 hours as this news is more broadly communicated – remember to show understanding and patience with others who may not be aware enforcement is no longer required."
The CDC recently extended the mask mandate, which was set to expire Monday, until May 3 to allow more time to study the BA.2 omicron subvariant of the coronavirus that is now responsible for the vast majority of cases in the U.S.
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 have seized on the fact that states have rolled back rules requiring masks in restaurants, stores and other indoor settings, and yet COVID-19 cases have fallen sharply since the omicron variant peaked in mid-January.
There have been a series of violent incidents on aircraft that have mainly been attributed to disputes over the mask-wearing requirements.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis celebrated the ruling on Twitter, saying, "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 lawsuit was filed in July 2021 by two plaintiffs and the Health Freedom Defense Fund, described in the judge's order as a nonprofit group that “opposes laws and regulations that force individuals to submit to the administration of medical products, procedures and devices against their will.”
Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo contributed to this story from Washington.
10 Tampa Bay's Andrew Quintana contributed to this report.