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Florida Judge Kathryn Mizelle Overturns CDC’s Public Transportation Mask Mandate

On April 18 2022, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle vacated a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) mask mandate for public transportation, a reversal with broad implications.

Forbes was one of the first outlets to cover the ruling, prefacing their report with several bullet points:

A federal judge threw out the federal government’s mask mandate for airports, airplanes and other public transportation [on April 18 2022], ruling the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exceeded its authority by imposing the mask requirement days after the agency extended it another two weeks [into May 2022].

U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, issued a ruling that declared the mask mandate unlawful and blocked it by vacating the order and sending it back to the CDC “for further proceedings.”

The anti-mandate Health Freedom Defense Fund had sued the CDC and federal officials in July [2021] over the mask requirement, asking the court to declare the order unlawful and set it aside under the Administrative Procedure Act.

CNBC explained that the ruling originated with a July 2021 lawsuit filed against the CDC by the “Health Freedom Defense Fund,” an anti-vaccine and anti-masking group that appears to exist solely to generate nuisance lawsuits attacking guidelines issued to protect people during a global airborne pandemic.

The story added that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recently extended the mask mandate through May 3 2022:

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 … While state and local authorities across the country have lifted mask mandates, the CDC decided [on April 13 2022] to keep the federal requirements for public transportation in place through May 3 [2022]. The agency said it needed time to assess whether the recent rise of Covid infections would have an impact on hospital capacity.

Uvalde Body Cam Footage Suppressed?
Uvalde Body Cam Footage Suppressed?

Airlines have repeatedly asked the Biden administration to the drop mask mandate as well as other restrictions such as predeparture testing for international travelers.

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.

On April 13 2022, outlets like NBC News reported that the CDC extended mask requirements through early May 2022. That decision was influenced by a surge in new infections in early April 2022, but airline industry groups opposed it:

The current requirement that all travelers wear face coverings had been set to expire next Monday [April 18 2022], but the Transportation Security Administration will now extend the requirement for an additional 15 days, through May 3 [2022], the CDC announced.

[…]

Airlines had begun to push the administration to let the mandate expire. Airlines have been left to enforce the masking requirements while increasingly more states and localities have dropped their requirements that people wear face coverings in public.

The group Airlines for America, which represents the 10 major U.S. carriers, asked the administration in a letter [in April 2022] to drop the mask and pre-departure testing requirement for international flights.

On April 13 2022, the CDC issued a statement on the topic of travel (“CDC Mask Order Remains in Effect and CDC Realigns Travel Health Notice System.”) It described the agency’s basis for a brief extension of the mask requirement on planes and public transportation, reading in part:

CDC continues to monitor the spread of the Omicron variant, especially the BA.2 subvariant that now makes up more than 85% of U.S. cases. Since early April [2022], there have been increases in the 7-day moving average of cases in the U.S. The CDC Mask Order remains in effect while CDC assesses the potential impact of the rise of cases on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and healthcare system capacity. TSA will extend the security directive and emergency amendment for 15 days, through May 3, 2022 … CDC will continue to monitor COVID-19 levels, in our communities, nationally, and abroad to provide the most up-to-date guidance to keep travelers safe and healthy.

On page two of the 59-page long ruling [PDF], Mizelle wrote:

The Court concludes that the Mask Mandate exceeds the CDC’s statutory authority and violates the procedures required for agency rulemaking under the [Administrative Procedure Act, or APA]. Accordingly, the Court vacates the Mandate and remands it to the CDC.

An April 18 2022 NBC News article about the ruling described the large number of agencies, organizations, and transit companies affected by the sudden decision; New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) said that it would adhere to the CDC’s original mask order extension:

The Justice Department declined immediate comment on whether the government would seek to block the judge’s order and allow the mandate to remain in effect. The CDC, FAA, and TSA said they were evaluating their options, and the MTA said it would continue to follow the CDC guidelines as it reviews the new decision.

A very terse New York Times item alluded to “further litigation” or appeals pertaining to the decision:

[Mizelle] declared the mandate unlawful and vacated it — apparently shutting it down for now. It was not immediately clear whether the Justice Department would appeal her order. If so, it could ask the judge or an appeals court to stay her order so that the C.D.C. could continue to enforce it while the matter undergoes further litigation.

CNN speculated that application of the ruling could be uneven at best, and still more chaotic at worst:

It is unclear clear how quickly the ruling will be implemented at airports or train stations across the country or if the Justice Department will attempt to block the ruling and file an appeal … The White House, the Department of Homeland Security and CDC did not immediately comment on the ruling.

On April 18 2022, Florida judge Kathryn Mizelle struck down the CDC’s mask mandate extension in a ruling that stemmed from a July 2021 suit filed by the anti-mask “Health Freedom Defense Fund.” The broad range of the ruling applied to air travel and public transport, and few of the involved agencies appeared to be initially prepared to comment. At least one major transit organization (the MTA) indicated it planned to follow the CDC’s extension, not the ruling. Several news organizations suggested the ruling might be challenged by agencies like the Justice Department, but little information about how the decision might affect travelers was available after the ruling was initially reported.