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A federal judge in Florida rejects Biden's transportation mask requirement

airport travel seattle airport.jpeg
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

TSA says it will no longer enforce the mandate after a Tampa-based judge's ruling. It didn't take long for major airlines to switch to a mask-optional policy, with some passengers cheering when the change was announced midfight.

A Florida federal judge’s decision to strike down the Biden administration's transportation mask mandate Monday was met with cheers on some airplanes but also concern about whether it’s really time to end the order sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the ruling, the Transportation Security Administration announced it wouldn’t enforce its 2021 security directive that applied to airplanes, airports, taxis and other mass transit.

The major airlines and many of the busiest airports rushed to drop their requirements. Passengers on a Delta overseas flight cheered and applauded. But some airports, including those in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, recommended that people mask up voluntarily.

U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, who is based in Tampa, ruled that the federal mask mandate on planes, trains, buses and other modes of public transportation is "unlawful." In a summary, she wrote that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had exceeded its authority and failed to follow proper rulemaking procedures.

RELATED: Read the ruling by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle

In a 59-page ruling, Mizelle argues that the mandate violates the Administrative Procedure Act, in part because it did not give the public proper time to review and comment on the mask rule before it was put in place. Also, she wrote that the requirement was “arbitrary and capricious” because the CDC didn’t adequately explain its reasoning.

“The mandate does not address alternative (or supplementary) requirements to masking, such as testing, temperature checks or occupancy limits in transit hubs and conveyances,” wrote Mizelle, who was appointed to the federal bench by former President Donald Trump. “It also does not explain why all masks — homemade and medical-grade — are sufficient.”

The lawsuit was filed last July against the Biden administration, the CDC and Department of Health and Human Services by the Health Freedom Defense Fund and two Florida women, Sarah Pope, of Lutz, and Ana Carolina Daza, of Safety Harbor.

“Unelected officials cannot do whatever they like to our personal freedoms just because they claim good motives and a desirable goal,” Leslie Manookian, president of the Wyoming-based nonprofit organization, said about the ruling.

White House is still reviewing decision

The Justice Department declined to comment on whether it would seek an emergency stay to block the judge’s order. The CDC also declined to comment.

The White House said Mizelle’s decision "disappointing," but said the administration's response was still under review.

"The CDC continues recommending wearing a mask in public transit," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

"As you know, this just came out this afternoon so right now the Department of Homeland Security, who would be implementing, and the CDC are reviewing the decision," Psaki said. "And of course, the Department of Justice would make any determination about litigation."

The mandate had been set to expire Monday, but last week the CDC extended it through May 3, citing that officials need more time to study the BA.2 subvariant of COVID-19.

"We do have upward trends of infections. CDC is responding to the data, and it's implementing the measure it has the authority to do," said James Hodge, a public health law professor at Arizona State University in an interview with NPR.

Airlines immediately lift mask mandates

On Monday, some of the major U.S. airlines — Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines — announced that masks are now optional for passengers on their aircraft.

Passengers on a Delta flight between Atlanta and Barcelona cheered, whistled and applauded when a flight attendant announced the news midflight over the ocean.

“No one’s any happier than we are,” the attendant says in a video posted by Dillon Thomas, a CBS Denver reporter, who was on the flight.

She added that people who wanted to keep on their masks were encouraged to do so.

“But we’re ready to give ém up. So thank you and happy unmasking day!”

Delta said in a statement that masks are also optional onboard, but cautioned travelers that they may experience "inconsistent enforcement" over the next 24 hours as the news is more "broadly communicated."

"Communications to customers and in-airport signage and announcements will be updated to share that masking is now optional — this may take a short period of time," Delta said in its statement.

In a statement to NPR, United Airlines says that masks are no longer required on domestic flights and select international flights.

"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," the company said in its statement.

A spokesperson for the airline says they will continue to "closely monitor the situation" in the event of changes from health officials.

Southwest said in a statement that both employees and passengers could choose whether they would like to wear a mask and are encouraging those to "make the best decision to support their personal wellbeing."

"We appreciate the cooperation and compliance efforts of our Customers and Employees as policies have evolved. We'll continue to monitor public health guidance, and federal requirements, while always keeping safety as our uncompromising priority," according to Southwest.

American Airlines is following suit and is ending its mandatory mask requirement for travelers and staff at U.S. airports and on domestic flights.

The airline says that face masks may still be required in some places, based on local ordinances or when traveling to and from international locations.

Some major airports dropped their requirements but sided with the CDC in recommending that people be voluntarily masked. They included Los Angeles International Airport and Salt Lake City International Airport, which announced it would hand out masks to anyone requesting them.

Amtrak also said it would make masks optional for passengers and train employees. .

Meantime, New York City’s public transit system planned to keep its mask requirement in place. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority said it would make masks optional for riders on its buses and trains.

The ride sharing company Uber said it would make masks optional, but in its announced noted that the CDC still recommends masks. As of Tuesday morning, Lyft was requiring masks.

DeSantis praises the judge’s ruling

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has battled the Biden administration over COVID-19 issues, praised Mizelle's decision.

"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," DeSantis wrote in a Twitter post.

Last month, governors from Florida and 20 other states sued the Biden administration to end mandate, arguing that the continued enforcement "harms the states" and interferes with some local laws. The filing came days after airline CEOs called on President Joe Biden to drop the mandate.

"President Biden's shortsighted, heavy-handed and unlawful travel policies are frustrating travelers and causing chaos on public transportation," Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, who is leading the states' effort, said in a statement. "It's long past time to alleviate some of the pressure on travelers and those working in the travel industry by immediately ending Biden's unlawful public transportation mandates."

On Jan. 21, 2021, Biden signed an executive order requiring people to wear masks as a means of protecting against the spread of COVID-19 during domestic and international travel. The CDC imposed the requirement a few days later.

Information from NPR, the Associated Press and News Service of Florida was used in this report.

Originally founded in December 2006 as an independent grassroots publication dedicated to coverage of health issues in Florida, Health News Florida was acquired by WUSF Public Media in September 2012.