- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Many Americans flew bare-faced Tuesday, but court-ordered relief from the federal mask mandate on public transportation may be short-lived as the Justice Department signaled it is ready to file an appeal of the decision out of Florida.

Justice Department attorneys said Tuesday evening that they are waiting for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to take a second look at its decision to extend the federal mandate through May 3 and affirm that the agency believes it “remains necessary for public health.” It was a strong sign that the Biden administration will fight the legal decision that ended the mandate on Monday.

“The department continues to believe the order requiring masking in the transportation corridor is a valid exercise of the authority Congress has given CDC to protect the public health,” Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said. “That is an important authority the department will continue to work to preserve.”

The statement signaled that the administration wants to safeguard its ability to set the rules of the road during the COVID-19 pandemic even if passengers started to shed their masks on planes, buses and trains across America.

“Public health decisions shouldn’t be made by the courts. They should be made by the public health experts,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters en route to New Hampshire.

Any effort to restore and prolong the mask mandate on public transportation will prove unpopular with some travelers. Major airlines, transit systems and ride-hailing companies stopped enforcing their mask rules Monday and Tuesday, leading to celebrations among the pandemic-weary.

SEE ALSO: Supreme Court rejects service member’s religious exemption claim against COVID-19 shot mandate

Emily and Rob Raval of Vienna, Virginia, who have two young children, called the mask mandate “unpleasant.”

“I don’t want [my son] wearing a mask. He’s not going to be sick. He’s going to be fine,” Mr. Raval, 33, told The Washington Times at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, just across the Potomac River from Washington.

Putting the mask on a child “was just a fight that was like an unnecessary battle. It was tough. Not necessarily because he’s not willing to do it, but they’re so little,” said Mrs. Raval, also 33.

Others would be relieved to see President Biden preserve the mandate. They fear that the U.S. is courting another surge of COVID-19 as the fast-moving BA.2 variant of the coronavirus becomes dominant.

Cliff Collins, 63, a retired college professor and administrator from Clinton, Maryland, said he was disappointed with the judge’s ruling because he is immunocompromised.

“I’m a terminal cancer patient and just went through chemo and all that stuff, so I’m going to keep my mask on,” he said. “I understand everybody’s tired of the mask. But for those of us that really need to take those necessary precautions, I’m going to beg to differ that until we actually get a handle on all of the variants out there and until we get down to almost minimal infections, I really think we ought to just keep the mask mandate.”

SEE ALSO: Uber ends mask policy as judge nullifies CDC’s travel mask mandate

The sudden collapse of the federal rule left passengers facing a confusing patchwork of mask rules across the country. In some cases, travelers and commuters might have to don masks part way through their trips.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said passengers on NJTransit trains would no longer be required to wear masks, but the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City held firm. It cited New York state rules on mask-wearing despite the federal court ruling.

That means commuters could travel by train across the Hudson River in Manhattan without masks and then face a mandate once they hop onto the subway to get across the city.

Folks traveling south from New York face a citywide mask mandate in Philadelphia. Local officials said the BA.2 variant-fueled surge in COVID-19 cases tipped the city into a higher alert level, so they broke with national trends and reimposed a public indoor mask rule this week.

Masks are optional on Amtrak’s national network and on the Metro trains operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

“Our mask mandate has been based on federal guidance,” Metro General Manager and CEO Paul J. Wiedefeld said. “We will continue to monitor this situation as it unfolds, but masks will be optional on Metro property until further notice.”  

The transit rule trickled down to ride-hailing services. Uber and Lyft announced Tuesday that riders and drivers are no longer required to wear masks.

Air travel has been the main battleground for the mask rule. Flight attendants frequently fought with unruly passengers thousands of feet in the air.

Major airlines told passengers they could wear masks if they chose but it wouldn’t be required. Carriers said they needed time to switch signage and get the word out to workers and customers.

“Given the unexpected nature of this announcement, please be aware that customers, airline employees and federal agency employees, such as [the Transportation Security Administration], may be receiving this information at different times,” Delta Air Lines said.

Airlines also said passengers should expect caveats.

“We’re currently requiring masks on the full flight for Canada departures per Canadian requirements, and upon arrival in Mexico and Costa Rica, per those country’s requirements,” Alaska Airlines told The Washington Times.

Chicago O’Hare International Airport said it will still require mask-wearing in airport terminals because of an Illinois mandate that applies to transportation.

The public address system at Reagan Airport was still advising people that “face coverings were required at all times,” sparking confusion for some who had not heard the news that the mandate had been struck down.

“The mask mandate was lifted here at the airport?” a bewildered couple from Alexandria said to a reporter as both ditched their masks.
Transportation hubs are trying to unpack it all after U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, an appointee of President Trump, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overstepped its authority and did not justify issuing the advice that underpins the mask mandate.

She said the mandate ran afoul of federal law because the CDC did not adhere to the Administrative Procedure Act when issuing the order.

Biden administration officials had extended the mask mandate for two weeks, to May 3, instead of letting it expire Monday. They said they needed to understand the trajectory of the BA.2 variant.

New U.S. cases of COVID-19 have crept back to about 40,000 per day from fewer than 30,000 a month ago, and many home-test positive results are not reported. The trend line prompted federal scientists to plead for more time to unwind the transportation mandate.
The judge ended the mandate for them.

Ms. Psaki said she saw videos of people on planes celebrating and ripping off their masks after flight attendants announced the rule change late Monday, but she added that “anecdotes are not data.”

“Certainly, that does tell a part of the story, but we don’t make these decisions based on politics or the political whims on a plane or even in a poll,” Ms. Psaki said.

She said many people still want mask mandates because they have immunocompromised relatives, children younger than 5 who are ineligible for vaccines or “whatever it may be.”

Asked whether Americans should be wearing masks, Mr. Biden briefly told reporters that it is “up to them” and he hadn’t spoken with the CDC about the next steps.

Hours later, the Justice Department said it would appeal but left the door open to leaving the Florida decision in place if the CDC decides it does not need to reimpose the mandate to preserve public health.

Mr. Biden has continued to hold indoor events at the White House and the CDC does not recommend universal masking in much of the country, making the transportation rule an outlier.

The mandate was set to expire in less than two weeks, so the administration could have little impetus to spend political capital on defending it.

“I found it odd that most activities don’t require masks except for travel, and with airplanes, the risk is very low because of the air cycling and filtration mechanisms. In the immediate days, there will be a patchwork of policies, but that is no different than at any other time in the pandemic when different states had different rules,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“The trajectory of the pandemic is going to be one in which there always will be COVID-19 cases but they’ll increasingly be milder and decoupled from hospitalizations because of the medical countermeasures we have. COVID-19 was always destined to transition to a seasonal respiratory illness just like other members of the coronavirus family, and the ending of the transportation mask mandate reflects the fact that we will increasingly treat the virus as such,” he said.

Outside groups urged the administration to accept the ruling as another step toward treating COVID-19 as a manageable disease.
“The current decision to halt enforcement of the federal mask mandate effectively returns the choice of mask usage on planes and other forms of public transportation to travelers and travel industry workers, a further step toward endemic management of COVID,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president for public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association.

“We also continue to urge the administration to immediately end pre-departure testing for vaccinated inbound international passengers, which discourages travel and provides limited public health benefits,” Ms. Barnes said.

A coalition of more than 300 pilots and flight attendants applauded the ruling. Still, they continued to file papers in a federal appeals court lawsuit saying the rules are difficult to enforce and masks are difficult to wear for hours on end.

Janviere Carlin, a JetBlue pilot in Boston who is coordinating the legal effort, said the pilots and flight attendants want to enjoin the TSA from ever issuing another mask mandate “because we are not fooled into thinking that this administration will give up so easily.”

• Alex Swoyer and Peter Santo contributed to this report.

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

• Kerry Picket can be reached at kpicket@washingtontimes.com.

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