The Biden administration will no longer enforce a US mask mandate on public transportation, after a federal judge in Florida on Monday 18 April ruled that the 14-month-old directive was unlawful, overturning a key White House effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Soon after the announcement, all major carriers including American Airlines AAL.O, United Airlines UAL.O and Delta Air Lines DAL.N, as well as national train line Amtrak relaxed the restrictions effective immediately.
Last week, US health officials had extended the mandate to 3 May requiring travellers to wear masks on airplanes, trains, and in taxis, ride-share vehicles or transit hubs, saying they needed time to assess the impact of a recent rise in COVID-19 cases caused by the airborne coronavirus.
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Industry groups and Republican lawmakers balked and wanted the administration to end the 14-month-old mask mandate permanently.
The ruling by US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, an appointee of President Donald Trump, came in a lawsuit filed last year in Tampa, Florida, by a group called the Health Freedom Defense Fund. It follows a string of rulings against Biden administration directives to fight the infectious disease that has killed nearly one million Americans, including vaccine or test mandates for employers.
Judge Mizelle said the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had exceeded its authority with the mandate, had not sought public comment and did not adequately explain its decisions.
A US administration official said while the agencies were assessing potential next steps, the court's decision meant CDC's public transportation masking order was no longer in effect. The administration could still opt to appeal the order or seek an emergency delay in the order's enforcement.
"Therefore, TSA will not enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs at this time," the official said in a statement.
"CDC recommends that people continue to wear masks in indoor public transportation settings."
The Transportation Security Administration said that it will rescind the new Security Directives that were scheduled to take effect on Tuesday 19 April.
The ruling comes as COVID-19 infections rise again in the United States, with 36,251 new infections reported on average each day, and 460 daily deaths, based on a seven-day average - the highest number of reported total COVID-19 deaths in the world.
The White House called the ruling "disappointing."
The CDC first issued a public health order requiring masks in interstate transportation in February 2021. The TSA issued a security directive to enforce the CDC order.
The CDC and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) declined to comment.
United Airlines, American, Delta, Southwest Airlines LUV.N, JetBlue JBLU.O and Alaska Airlines ALK.N said masks are now optional on their planes.
"We are relieved to see the U.S. mask mandate lift to facilitate global travel as COVID-19 has transitioned to an ordinary seasonal virus," Delta said. The World Health Organization warned against comparing the virus to an endemic illness like the flu earlier this year, noting it is evolving too quickly.
The move could impact travel demand, which has roared back after a blip caused by the Omicron coronavirus variant. US passenger traffic has been averaging about 89% of the pre-pandemic levels since mid-February, according to TSA data.
With the COVID-19 case count rising again, lifting the mandate could make some passengers wary, while prompting others to fly again.
Only 36% of Americans think it's time for people to stop using masks and quarantines so that life can get back to normal after COVID-19, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted between 31 January and 7 February. However, while a mere 16% of Democrats hold this view, a whopping 60% of Republicans do, according to the poll.
Delta chief executive officer Ed Bastian last week acknowledged the risk, but said the airline still expected its flights to be full.
"It's a question of individual accountability, personal accountability, making your own decisions rather than the government making decisions for people as to how to stay well," Bastian told Reuters in an interview.
On Monday 18 April, Delta asked its employees to show "understanding and patience" as the unexpected nature of the announcement could result in "inconsistent" enforcement.
Since January 2021, there have been a record 7,060 unruly passenger incidents reported, 70% involving masking rules, according to the FAA. Thousands of passengers have been put on "no-fly" lists for refusing to comply with masking requirements.
Alaska said that some passengers will remain banned, even after the mask policy is rescinded.
FACTBOX-US Airlines Drop Mask Requirements For Passengers, Employees
The Biden administration will no longer enforce a US mask mandate on public transportation, after a federal judge in Florida ruled that the directive was unlawful, overturning a key White House effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Airlines welcomed the move on Monday 18 April by saying they would no longer require masks:
Alaska Airlines ALK.N
"Face masks have been like boarding passes for nearly two years - you couldn't fly without one. But, as of today, masks are optional in airports and onboard aircraft, effective immediately."
"While we are glad this means many of us get to see your smiling faces, we understand some might have mixed feelings. Please remember to be kind to one another and that wearing a mask while traveling is still an option."
American Airlines AAL.O
"Face masks will no longer be required for our customers and team members at US airports and on domestic flights.
"Please note face masks may still be required based on local ordinances, or when traveling to/from certain international locations based on country requirements."
Delta Air Lines DAL.N
"Effective immediately, masks are optional for all airport employees, crew members and customers inside U.S. airports and onboard aircraft."
"We are relieved to see the US mask mandate lift to facilitate global travel as COVID-19 has transitioned to an ordinary seasonal virus. Thank you for your support in complying with the federal mask mandate and keeping each other, and our customers, safe during the pandemic."
United Airlines UAL.O
"Effective immediately, masks are no longer required at United on domestic flights, select international flights (dependent upon the arrival country's mask requirements) or at US airports.
"While this means that our employees are no longer required to wear a mask - and no longer have to enforce a mask requirement for most of the flying public - they will be able to wear masks if they choose to do so, as the CDC continues to strongly recommend wearing a mask on public transit."
"Mask wearing will now be optional on JetBlue. While no longer required, customers and crewmembers are welcome to continue wearing masks in our terminals and on board our aircraft."
Southwest Airlines LUV.N
"Southwest employees and customers will be able to choose whether they would like to wear a mask, and we encourage individuals to make the best decision to support their personal wellbeing."
Airlines For America (Industry Trade Group)
"The high level of immunity and widespread vaccine accessibility in the US coupled with the hospital-grade cabin air on aircraft provide a strong, science-based foundation for passengers to travel with confidence as restrictions are lifted on our nation's airlines."
"We look forward to welcoming millions of travelers back to the skies this summer to reunite with loved ones, attend conferences or to take a vacation."