St. PETERSBURG, Florida (AP) – A federal judge in Florida rescinded a national mask mandate on planes and mass transit on Monday, and airlines and airports quickly began removing requirements that passengers wear face coverings.
The judge’s decision freed airlines, airports and mass transit systems to make their own decisions about mask requirements, resulting in a mix of responses.
Major airlines switched to a mask-optional policy, with some cheering passengers as the changes were announced over loudspeakers. The Transportation Security Administration said Monday night that it will no longer enforce mask requirements, and airports in Houston and Dallas almost immediately relinquished their mandates after the TSA’s announcement.
LAX spokesman Heath Montgomery said Los Angeles International Airport, the world’s fifth-largest airport by passenger numbers, had also dropped its mandate, but the Centers for Disease Control continued to recommend hiding transportation “and I think that’s good advice.”
Sleeping passengers on a Delta Airlines flight between Atlanta and Barcelona, Spain, cheered and applauded as the flight attendant announced the news mid-flight over the ocean.
“No one is happier than us,” the hostess said in a video posted by Dillon Thomas, CBS Denver reporter, who was on the plane. She added that people who wanted to wear their masks were encouraged to do so.
“But we are ready to give up,” she added. “So thank you and happy unveiling day!”
New York City’s public transit system plans to keep mask requirements in place. The Washington, DC District Transportation Authority said it will make masks optional for passengers on its buses and trains.
The Association of Flight Attendants, the largest federation of cabin crews in the country, recently took a neutral stance on the mask rule because its members are divided on the issue. On Monday, the head of the union called for calm on planes and airports.
“The last thing we need for workers on the front lines or travelers today is confusion and chaos,” said union leader Sarah Nelson.
It takes airlines 24 to 48 hours to put new procedures in place and tell employees about them, Nelson said. It said passengers should check with airlines for updates on travel requirements.
The mask requirement covered airlines, airports, mass transit and taxis, and is the biggest remnant of pandemic restrictions that were once the norm across the country.
US District Judge Catherine Kimball-Maisel’s decision in Tampa, appointed by former President Donald Trump, said the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed to justify its decision and did not follow appropriate rule-making procedures that left it fatally flawed.
In her 59-page ruling, Meiselle said the only remedy is to scrap the rule entirely across the country because it would be impossible to end it for the limited group of people who objected to the lawsuit.
The judge said that “limited treatment will never be a cure” and the courts have full authority to make such a decision — even if the CDC’s goals in fighting the virus are commendable.
The Justice Department declined to comment when asked if it would seek an emergency stay to block the judge’s order. The CDC also declined to comment.
The White House said the court ruling means the mask order is “not in effect at this time.”
“This is clearly a disappointing decision,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “The CDC recommends wearing a mask on public transportation.”
The CDC recently extended the mandate of the maskwhich was due to expire Monday, will run 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 United States.
In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s director of communications, Tim Minton, said the system “continues to follow CDC guidelines and will review a Florida court order.”
The MTA operates New York City subway buses and trains as well as two commuter rail lines. Face coverings have been mandatory on all trains and buses since early in the pandemic.
And United Airlines said in a statement, that, effective immediately, there will be no need for masks on domestic flights or some international flights.
“While this means that our staff will no longer be required to wear a mask — and no longer have to enforce mask requirements on most airline travelers — they will be able to wear masks if they choose to do so, with the CDC continuing to strongly recommend the wearing of a mask on public transportation.” United said.
Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines have also made similar announcements.
Federal mask requirement For travelers, it was the target of months of lobbying by airlines that sought to eliminate it. Carriers have argued that effective air filters on modern aircraft make transmission of the virus during flight highly unlikely. Republicans in Congress also fought to kill the Mandate.
Critics have taken advantage of the fact that states have rolled back rules requiring masks in restaurants, stores and other indoor settings, yet cases of COVID-19 have fallen sharply since the omicron variant peaked in mid-January.
There have been a series of violent incidents on planes that have been attributed mainly to controversies over mask-wearing requirements.
The lawsuit was filed in July 2021 by two plaintiffs and the Health Liberty Defense Fund, described in the judge’s order as a nonprofit group that “conflicts laws and regulations that compel individuals to submit to the administration of medical products, procedures, and devices against their will.”
Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who was not directly involved in the case but has battled several government coronavirus requirements, praised the ruling in a statement on Twitter.
“It is wonderful to see a federal judge in Florida who is following the law and refusing to authorize the transportation mask for Biden. Both airline employees and passengers deserve to end this misery.”
Associated Press writers David Koenig in Dallas, Michael Balsamo and Will Visert in Washington, and Karen Matthews in New York contributed to this story.