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Federal judge strikes down mask mandate for travelers

Ruling against the government, the judge found the mask mandate exceeds the CDC's statutory authority and violates procedures for agency rulemaking.

TAMPA, Fla. (CN) — A federal judge in Florida vacated the government’s traveler mask mandate on Monday, opening the door for millions of air passengers to fly without face coverings for the first time in the pandemic era.

U.S. District Judge Kathryn Mizelle, a Donald Trump appointee, concluded that the mask mandate exceeds the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s statutory authority under the Public Health Services Act because it isn’t directly related to sanitation. Under the court's statutory interpretation, the CDC's sanitation measures refer to the action of cleaning something, not keeping something clean.

"Wearing a mask cleans nothing. At most, it traps virus droplets. But it neither 'sanitizes' the person wearing the mask nor 'sanitizes' the conveyance," Mizelle wrote.

Disagreeing with the government's interpretation of sanitation as a preventative measure, the judge found that term and others like inspection, fumigation and disinfection are not meant to be applied to individuals, but to "specific, tangible things."

Mizelle noted the CDC doesn't have the power to detain most people for not wearing a mask, just those who are traveling to the United States from a foreign country, or those coming in from another state who are believed to be infected.

She also ruled the mask mandate, put in place by the CDC in early February 2021, violates the procedures required for agency rulemaking under the Administrative Procedure Act.

While Covid-19 control measures have largely been relaxed throughout the U.S. as infections have dropped in recent months, the CDC recently extended its face mask requirement for airports, planes, trains and buses until Tuesday, May 3.

Airlines and other transportation providers must now decide if they want to keep enforcing the use of face coverings on their own.

As of the first week of April, the U.S. was seeing around 26,000 Covid-19 cases per week, a 4.9% increase from the week prior, according to the CDC. The agency has estimated that more than 85% of new U.S. cases are BA.2, a subvariant of the omicron mutation of the novel coronavirus.

"We will soon have more legal analysis on what this means and what next steps may be taken in court by the government. We urge focus on clear communication so that Flight Attendants and other frontline workers are not subject to more violence created by uncertainty and confusion,” the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA said in a statement Monday in response to the ruling.

The CEOs of several major U.S. airlines wrote a letter to President Joe Biden last month requesting that he drop the mask mandate on planes and testing requirements for arriving international travelers.

“It makes no sense that people are still required to wear masks on airplanes, yet are allowed to congregate in crowded restaurants, schools and at sporting events without masks,” the executives wrote.

Dutch airline KLM and the British airlines Jet2 and easyJet have eliminated their mask requirements, while British Airways now only enforces masks if the flyer’s destination requires them.

Some opponents of Monday’s ruling are questioning Judge Mizelle’s acumen based on the American Bar Association Standing Committee rating her as “not qualified” when she was nominated in 2020 due to her lack of experience practicing law.

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