Masks still required on Air Force One as White House figures out how to respond to ruling striking down mandate

But despite the rules on Air Force One, Biden told reporters upon his arrival in New Hampshire that its up to Americans to decide whether to still wear masks on planes, saying, “That’s up to them.”

Administration officials had been caught by surprise when the judge in Florida struck down the requirement, which had been in place for 441 days.

Suddenly, a decision administration officials had been contemplating for weeks — whether American travelers must wear masks — was made urgent and complicated by US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, who was selected by Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.

The order was parsed by lawyers at the White House, Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the agency that had been responsible for enforcing the rules. As they digested the 59-page ruling, it wasn’t clear whether passengers sitting in airports or aboard airplanes at 30,000 feet could remove their face coverings without running afoul of federal rules.

Airlines, which had been lobbying the administration for weeks to lift the mandates, sought guidance from the government on what exactly they should tell crews and passengers, whose phones were lighting up with news of the ruling.

And in the hours after the judge’s decision, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was unable to say whether a federal mask mandate for travelers remained in place.

“We’re continuing to recommend people wear masks. I don’t have any update,” Psaki said when asked whether the mask mandate is still in place for travelers boarding their flights Monday night.

But after a few hours of deliberation, administration lawyers determined the judge’s order meant the mask mandate wasn’t in effect — meaning the government couldn’t enforce it. The CDC emphasized that it was not enforcing the ruling in a subsequent statement to CNN on Tuesday.

White House Covid-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha tweeted on Tuesday that the CDC should have been allowed an additional 15 days to study masking on airlines before the federal mandate was lifted. Prior to the ruling, the administration had announced it was extending the mask mandate through the beginning of May.

“This was deeply disappointing,” Jha said in a tweet about the ruling. “CDC scientists had asked for 15 days to make a more data-driven durable decision(.) We should have given it to them(.) But I’ll continue to follow CDC guidance & mask up on planes(.)”

It still remains unclear if the Justice Department will seek an order halting the ruling and file an appeal. Psaki said on Tuesday that the administration is “reviewing next steps,” which could be decided in the coming days.

The President himself didn’t seem to know if the administration planned to appeal the ruling.

Asked in New Hampshire if he wants the Department of Justice to appeal the new mask ruling, Biden said, “I haven’t spoken to the CDC yet.”

Since the ruling and the administration’s subsequent guidance relaying that the mandate could not be enforced, several US airlines, some public transit authorities, Uber, Lyft and Amtrak have all announced that masks were no longer required for passengers.

The White House on Tuesday also pushed back on one of those companies, Delta Air Lines, after the company referred to Covid-19 as an “ordinary seasonal virus” in its post announcing that masks are optional on its flights.

The original post from Delta read: “We are relieved to see the U.S. mask mandate lift to facilitate global travel and COVID-19 has transitioned to an ordinary seasonal virus.”

A White House spokesman for Covid-related issues, Kevin Munoz, replied, “COVID is not an ‘ordinary seasonal virus'” and linked to Biden’s 100-page Covid preparedness plan.

Delta subsequently removed the reference to “ordinary seasonal virus” from its post.

Competing political interests over whether to mask up

If the White House was disappointed in the turn of events, scenes of air passengers gleefully removing their masks midair illustrated the complex emotions surrounding the moment.

Just last week, federal officials had extended the mask mandate for travel until at least May 3 — even as officials in the airline industry had been calling for an end to the masking requirement.

Mask mandates on planes have long proved among the most contentious of pandemic-era rules. Cabins have turned into breeding grounds for conflict, often over the necessity of wearing face coverings.

Polling from March found that Americans are close to evenly divided in their support for a continuing mask mandate for travel.

In a March 15-22 poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, US adults were split on the federal mandate requiring people to wear masks on airplanes, trains and other public transportation. About half, 51%, said the government should let the mandate expire after April 18 (as it was originally set to do), while another 48% wanted to see the mask mandate for travel extended.

The same March poll found broader support for voluntary mask wearing in some situations. A 59% majority of Americans said that “people should continue to wear masks in some public places to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and avoid another surge in cases,” while 40% said that “people should stop wearing masks in most public places so things can get back to normal.”

About two-thirds of Americans are vaccinated with at least their initial series and less than a third have received their boosters. But many are signaling that they are ready to move on and live with the virus — with only 1 in 10 calling the pandemic a crisis in a recent Axios-Ipsos poll.

Reported cases of coronavirus, meanwhile, are rising in more than half of the 50 states, largely driven by the BA.2 omicron subvariant. But Covid-19 hospitalizations are close to their lowest level since the government began tracking that metric in July 2020. The BA.2 subvariant of Omicron and its offshoots are now causing virtually all cases of Covid-19 in the US.

When asked if the White House is concerned whether the administration being out of step with the American public’s perception of Covid-19, Psaki told reporters on Tuesday, “(W)e don’t make these decisions based on politics or based on the political whims on a plane or even in a poll.”

She argued that “there are still a lot of people in this country who still want to have masks in place,” pointing to immunocompromised individuals and parents with young children.

Biden administration looks for a return to normal — on its terms

In some ways, lifting the mask requirement on planes, trains and buses was a natural step for a White House intent on returning life to normal.

A few hours before the ruling on Monday, Biden was greeting 30,000 guests on the South Lawn for a revived Easter Egg Roll in Washington, the largest event he’s hosted at the executive mansion since taking office.

Even amid a spike in cases within his circle and among high-profile officials in Washington over the last month, Biden hadn’t altered his routines. And even his top aides had begun conceding that in a different phase of the pandemic, it was entirely possible he becomes infected himself.

Biden will headline two high-dollar fundraisers in the Pacific Northwest when he visits at the end of this week, according to people familiar with the plans — his first time hitting the road to raise money since taking office. He’d avoided in-person fundraising events for much of his presidency and campaign amid the pandemic.

The fundraisers are the latest signal the White House is moving to a post-pandemic normal. They will support the Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund, which is a joint account between the Democratic National Committee and state democratic parties.

Biden is otherwise using his trip to promote his infrastructure law. It will be only his second time on the West Coast since entering office.

CNN’s Ariel Edwards-Levy, Brenda Goodman, Maeve Reston and DJ Judd contributed to this report.

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