End to US mask mandate for travel brings cheers, concerns

A United States judge’s decision to strike down a mask mandate on planes, trains and other forms of transportation in the US has been met with some cheers, while sparking concerns that removing masks could lead to more COVID-19 infections.

Major US airlines and many of the busiest airports rushed to drop their requirements on Monday after the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced it would not enforce a January 2021 security directive that applied to aeroplanes, airports, taxis and other mass transit.

But Monday’s ruling by a federal judge in Florida still gave those entities the option to keep their mask rules in place, resulting in directives that could vary from city to city.

Judge Kimball Mizelle, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, ruled that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) overstepped its authority in issuing the original health order on which the TSA directive was based.

Mizelle said the only remedy was to throw out the mandate for the entire country because it would be impossible to end it only for the people who objected in the lawsuit in which her decision was issued.

Major US airlines and many of the busiest airports rushed to drop their mask requirements on Monday [Brian Snyder/Reuters]

A video showed some passengers on a Delta Air Lines flight cheering and applauding as they took off their masks upon hearing an announcement that they were now optional. One man could be seen happily twirling his mask on his finger.

“No one’s any happier than we are,” a flight attendant says in the video posted on social media, adding that people who wanted to keep on their masks were encouraged to do so. “But we’re ready to give ’em up,” she said. “So thank you and happy unmasking day!”

Meanwhile, on Tuesday ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft scrapped face-mask mandates for their riders and drivers.

Uber, which introduced mask mandates for its drivers, riders and delivery workers around the world in May 2020, said that riders will have the option to cancel their trip if they feel uncomfortable with the revocation of the mask mandate.

The CDC had recently extended the mask mandate, which was set to expire on Monday, until May 3 to allow more time to study the BA.2 Omicron subvariant of the coronavirus now responsible for the vast majority of cases in the US. But the court ruling put that decision on hold.

According to the CDC, the US is currently averaging 35,000 new infections daily, a slight uptick from last month, but a major drop from January when cases hit record highs.

The Justice Department said later on Tuesday that it will not appeal the judge’s ruling unless the CDC believes the masking requirement is still necessary.

In a statement, Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said officials believe that the federal mask order was “a valid exercise of the authority Congress has given CDC to protect the public health” – and one “the Department will continue to work to preserve”.

Coley said the CDC had said it would continue to assess public health conditions, and if the agency determined a mandate was necessary for public health, the Justice Department would file an appeal.

Since the pandemic began two years ago, many state or local governments had issued various orders requiring masks to be worn inside schools, restaurants, stores or elsewhere. The rules were largely rolled back as the deadliest, most infectious months of the pandemic eased.

But the national rule for travellers remained and was arguably the most widespread, visible and irksome measure of its kind.

The wearing of masks on board aeroplanes sparked online flame-throwing between those who felt they were crucial to protecting people and those who saw it as an unnecessary inconvenience or even government overreach. Some flight attendants found themselves cursed and even attacked by passengers who refused to put masks on.

Judge Mizelle’s decision came in the context of a lawsuit 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”.

Republicans in Congress also had waged a running battle to kill the mandate.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who was not directly involved in the case but has battled against many government coronavirus requirements, praised the ruling.

“Both airline employees and passengers deserve to have this misery end,” DeSantis tweeted.

For its part, the White House called the court’s decision disappointing and said the mask order “is not in effect at this time”.

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