Airline mask mandate lifted: Is federal judge right?


Fact Box

  • On April 18, 2022, US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle ruled the CDC’s February 3, 2021 mask mandate for public transportation was “unlawful,” overturning the federal directive, saying it “exceeded the CDC’s statutory authority, improperly invoked the good cause exception to notice and comment rulemaking, and failed to adequately explain its decisions.” Major airlines including American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Airlines, Southwest and others lessened their restrictions immediately following the ruling. 
  • The CDC released a notice recommending “people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings” but will not enforce the previous order
  • On April 19, the DOJ announced they “disagree[d] with the district court’s decision and will appeal, subject to CDC’s conclusion that the order remains necessary for public health.” When asked later that same day if travelers should mask up on planes, Biden responded with “that’s up to them.” 
  • The current 7-day average of coronavirus cases in the US increased to 31,391 as of April 13, 2022, which is a 19.1% jump from the previous average (26,357). The total number of cases reached over 80 million in April 2022. 
  • An April 2022 Axios/Ipsos poll found that 33% of Americans believe returning to a pre-pandemic lifestyle is a moderate risk, and 26% wore masks at all times when leaving the home.

Siam (No)

The federal judge who lifted the airline mask mandate has made the wrong decision. The COVID pandemic is not over as people are still being admitted to hospitals and requiring intensive care. Likewise, 15% of American adults and millions of children under five, who remain unvaccinated, are not only at risk of contracting COVID but could also transmit the virus. Further, a new research study indicates that even mild cases of COVID may cause shrinkage of parts of the brain related to smell. Recent reports from the CDC reveal the US is seeing an increase in the spread of the BA.2 Omicron variant, now accounting for more than 35% of cases.

Dropping masking on public transportation, such as airplanes, is dangerous. There is ample evidence showing how masking during indoor settings protects both families and children. Before the COVID vaccines were available, masking indoors helped reduce the spread of the virus among students and staff. And there were several documented cases showing COVID could spread on planes during the pandemic. While the numbers are low, this does not bode well for people at high risk or immunocompromised, who are at high risk of acquiring the virus and developing serious symptoms. Plus, connecting and international passengers can contribute to the spread of COVID and its variants beyond geographical borders in no time.

It is difficult to say the risk of acquiring COVID during flight because of the many variables. But the best advice comes from the CDC and other experts, who all say travelers should continue masking on planes. Masking is a cost-effective and essentially harmless way to prevent the spread or entry of the virus. Masks, in general, cause less harm, if any, than potentially catching the virus and should continue being worn in public transportation.

Curtice (Yes)

Despite mask mandates being lifted nearly everywhere across the country, the Biden administration chose to keep the federal requirement that passengers on planes, trains, and other transportation wear masks. US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle recently overturned that federal mask mandate. The TSA will no longer enforce it.

First, the technical aspects of the ruling do stand up to scrutiny. Judge Mizelle ruled the CDC masking requirement violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) as it did not allow 'public participation through the APA's notice and comment procedures.' It also 'lacked specificity' and was 'full of contradictions,' the judge noted, as it did not differentiate between different kinds of masks, such as cloth or N-95 medical-grade masks, based on their efficacy at blocking transmission.

The CDC claimed the authority to impose the mandate came from the 1944 Public Health Services Act, specifically, the 'sanitation clause.' As the judge further noted, 'sanitation' is strictly limited to cleaning measures, and 'wearing a mask cleans nothing.'

Second, from a practical standpoint, as noted in numerous studies, including a recent study published in the journal Physics of Fluids in March 2022, cloth masks do not protect anyone from COVID-19. The science appears quite clear on this point. Additionally, rules that were in effect during the mask mandate still allowed for removing masks while eating or drinking. Despite claims to the contrary, the Biden administration and the CDC have quite often not followed the science. The federal government, just like the rest of us, must follow the law of the land. Judge Mizelle has seen to that.

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