TSA will not enforce Covid mask mandate on planes, public transit after court ruling

Travelers make their way through the Miami International Airport before starting the Labor Day weekend on September 03, 2021 in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images

A federal judge in Florida on Monday vacated the Biden administration’s national Covid mask mandate for planes and other forms of public transportation, ruling that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had overstepped its authority.

U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa said the CDC had failed to adequately explain its reasons for the mandate, and did not allow public comment in violation of federal procedures for issuing new rules. Mizelle was appointed by former President Donald Trump in 2020.

The Transportation Security Administration is not enforcing the mask mandate on public transportation after the court’s ruling, a Biden administration official said. However, the CDC continues to recommend that people wear masks, the official said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, in a press conference Monday, said the administration is reviewing the court’s ruling and the Justice Department will determine whether it will appeal. The Justice Department declined to comment when asked by CNBC.

The Health Freedom Defense Fund, a group that opposes public health mandates, and two individuals who argued that wearing masks while flying exacerbated their anxiety and panic attacks first filed the lawsuit against the Biden administration in July 2021. The CDC mandate also applied to trains, buses, taxis and ride-shares among other forms of public transit.

The court’s ruling comes less than a week after the CDC extended the mask mandate for 15 days, amid a rise in Covid infections nationwide due to the more contagious omicron BA.2 subvariant. The U.S. reported a seven-day average of nearly 35,000 new infections as of Friday, a 36% increase over the past two weeks, according to data from the CDC.

While state and local authorities across the country have lifted mask mandates, the CDC decided last week to keep the federal requirements for public transportation in place through May 3. The agency said it needed time to assess whether the recent rise in Covid infections would have an impact on hospital capacity.

Airlines have repeatedly asked the Biden administration to the drop mask mandate as well as other restrictions such as predeparture testing for all international arrivals, including citizens.

The CDC’s decision to extend the mandate for public transportation stands in contrast to the agency easing its health recommendations in most other areas of daily life. Under the CDC’s current guidance, most Americans live in areas where they no longer need to wear masks in restaurants, bars, stores and other public places indoors.

The agency recently changed the metrics that underpin its public health recommendations, placing a greater emphasis on hospitalizations rather than relying mostly on infections. Hospitalizations and infections have plummeted more than 90% since the peak of the winter omicron wave in January.

The CDC said it wouldn’t comment on pending litigation.

CNBC’s Leslie Josephs contributed to this report.

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