US Justice Department appealing order that ended travel mask rule

A US judge this week suspended a mandate requiring travellers to wear masks on planes, trains and other public transit.

The US Justice Department will appeal a ruling that ended a government order that required travellers to wear masks on aeroplanes, trains and other forms of public transit across the United States due to COVID-19.

Anthony Coley, the department’s director of public affairs, tweeted on Wednesday that a notice of appeal was filed after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the mask mandate for travel “remains necessary to protect the public health”.

In an earlier statement, the CDC said it had determined that “at this time an order requiring masking in the indoor transportation corridor remains necessary for the public health”.

“CDC will continue to monitor public health conditions to determine whether such an order remains necessary,” it said.

The move comes after a federal judge in the US state of Florida on Monday ruled that the CDC had exceeded its authority with the mask mandate, had not sought public comment, and did not adequately explain the decision.

US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle’s decision – which suspended the masking order nationwide – came in a lawsuit filed last year by a group called the Health Freedom Defense Fund, which has challenged state and federal vaccine and mask mandates in courts across the country.

It sparked some cheers as flight attendants announced that passengers could remove their masks mid-air, but it also raised concerns among many people in the US who feared it could lead to an uptick in COVID-19 infections.

The CDC first issued a public health order requiring masks on interstate transportation in late January 2021, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) then issued a security directive to enforce the CDC order.

Industry groups and Republican lawmakers had wanted the Biden administration to immediately end the 14-month-old mask mandate last week, when the order was set to expire.

But the CDC said it wanted more time to study the BA.2 Omicron subvariant now spreading rapidly in the US – and it ordered a 15-day extension of the rule until May 3.

The Biden administration, which has faced legal challenges to its efforts to impose various mandates to stem the spread of COVID-19, said earlier this week that it disagreed with the Florida judge’s decision.

But it said it would wait for guidance from the CDC about what is needed before committing to an appeal. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said earlier on Wednesday, before the CDC’s announcement, that the health agency continued to recommend mask-wearing on public transit. 

It remained unclear whether the Biden administration would ask the appeals court to grant an emergency stay to immediately re-impose the mask mandate on public transit.

The US has reported the highest number of coronavirus-related deaths in the world with more than 990,000 fatalities, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

COVID-19 infections are rising again in the country, with 36,251 new infections reported on average each day, and 460 daily deaths, based on a seven-day average – the highest number of reported total COVID-19 deaths in the world.

While vaccines are readily available across the US, millions of Americans still refuse to get jabs.

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