US drops travel mask mandate for airplanes and public transport after judge’s ruling

Health agency recently renewed travel mandate for another two weeks

People wearing masks at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas. AFP
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The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said on Monday it will not enforce a pandemic-era travel mask mandate on planes, trains and buses after a federal judge struck down the nationwide mandate.

A federal judge in Florida overturned the US government mask mandate on public transport, dealing a blow to President Joe Biden's administration as fights continue nationwide over policies concerning the coronavirus pandemic.

US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa vacated the mask mandate nationwide and directed the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) to reverse the policy. The suit was filed by the Health Freedom Defence Fund.

“Today’s court decision means CDC’s public transportation masking order is not in effect at this time,” a TSA official said in a statement to news agencies.

“Therefore, TSA will not enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs at this time.”

Following the TSA announcement, two major US airlines — United Airlines and Alaska Air — said that they’ll no longer require travellers or employees to wear face coverings on domestic and some international flights.

Delta, American, Southwest and Jet Blue soon followed.

United said its employees may continue to wear masks, "if they choose to do so". The airlines said they also will not require the use of masks at boarding gates or elsewhere in airports.

Amtrak, the nation's passenger train service, said it was also making mask-wearing optional.

The move came as states eased restrictions following an overall drop in case numbers from a January peak caused by the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Florida and other Republican-led states in March filed a similar lawsuit seeking to overturn the mask mandate, a fight that pitted Mr Biden against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a critic of pandemic mandates.

The states accused the administration of ignoring “loss after loss” in court and having “outright disdain” for the limits of its power.

The CDC announced last week that it would extend the mask mandate by two weeks, to May 3, as it considers data on coronavirus infections and hospital cases driven by the BA.2 subvariant. The extension is shorter than previous ones, signalling that the agency was nearing a position to lift it altogether.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling. The CDC said it doesn’t comment on litigation.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called it “a disappointing decision” and said “we’re continuing to recommend that people wear masks” while the administration reviews the ruling and considers its legal options.

"We urge calm and consistency in the airports and on planes," a statement by the Association of Flight Attendants said. "The last thing we need for workers on the frontlines or passengers traveling today is confusion and chaos."

There has been a rise of in-flight violence in the last two years, many incidents involving the mask mandate.

Airlines in the UK recently removed their mask mandates and suffered cancellations due to staff shortages because some got infected with coronavirus.

Some regions in the US are reporting a rise in coronavirus cases after a lull that came after the severe Omicron surge in the winter. The renewed spread of cases compelled the Philadelphia health department to reinstate its indoor mask mandate on Monday.

Nearly a million Americans have died of Covid-19 in the past two years, according to Johns Hopkins University data, and hundreds more continue to die every day.

The White House, along with other global alliances, announced on Monday that a second global Covid-19 summit will convene online in May.

News agencies contributed to this report

Updated: April 19, 2022, 2:42 PM
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