By Vanni Gibertini
U.S. Federal Judge Voids CDC Air Travel Mask Mandate
One of the most controversial measures that were introduced during the peak of the pandemic was the mandate to wear masks in many public places and on all means of transport, including aircraft.
Last week, the Federal Government extended the mandate until May 3, after it was supposed to come to an end on April 18 and quoted the rising number of COVID-19 cases, due to the rapid spread of the BA.2 variant of the coronavirus, as a reason for the extension.
However, on Monday, April 18, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle from Florida declared the mandate unlawful because it falls outside the scope of the law quoted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to justify the measure.
“Sanitation” means “Cleaning”
According to Judge Mizelle’s 59-page ruling, the mandate was issued following an improper interpretation of the word “sanitation”. Mizelle argued that the 1944 statute mentioned in the measure gives the Federal Government authority to issue regulations regarding “sanitation” to fight the spread of communicable diseases, but the word “sanitation” only refers to “cleaning something”, the CNN explains. Therefore, since masks are not intended to clean anything or to maintain it clean, they cannot be mandated as a result of that regulation.
Furthermore, the Federal Judge suggests that where non-complying passengers are “forcibly removed from their airplane seats, denied board at the bus stops, and turned away at the train station doors” is comparable to “detention and quarantine,” which does not fall within the scope of the statute in question.
This power to conditionally allow individuals to travel or detain them based on their likelihood to transmit communicable diseases can only be applied towards “individuals entering the United States from a foreign country”, continues the CNN quoting the ruling, and therefore is not applicable to domestic travel within the U.S.
It is not clear whether the Justice Department will file an appeal against this ruling or how quickly the mandate can be rolled back.
Airlines Call for the Removal of Restrictions
In response to the federal judge’s ruling on April 18 and the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) decision not to enforce masks, airlines and airports were quick to strike the mask mandate down. Alaska, Southwest, United, Delta, American and JetBlue officially announced that masks will be optional for passengers on all of their domestic flights and at major U.S. airports.
Last week, the association Airlines 4 America — an advocacy group representing 10 of the biggest airlines in the United States, including all the major carriers — sent a letter to the CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and the Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra urging to put an end to all the COVID-related restrictions affecting travel including the pre-departure testing for international travelers and the mask mandate for all passengers.
“The public health environment has changed dramatically since those requirements were put into place, in large part due to the Administration’s success in getting our population vaccinated. Hospitalizations and deaths have been falling since mid-January despite a recent uptick in cases in certain cities. These realities, along with the immunity provided by boosters and prior infections, coupled with effective treatments and the high level of safety onboard a plane due to effective ventilation and HEPA air filters provide a rationale for lifting pre-departure testing and mask requirements for air travel,” the letter said.
It is a common opinion among airline executives that the mask mandate is stifling demand for travel, preventing the full recovery of airline traffic to pre-pandemic levels. In February during a press event, Breeze Airways CEO and Founder David Neeleman told Airlinegeeks, “I do believe people are deterred from traveling because of the mask mandate. Every time I get to an airport, I get that sinking feeling of having to wear a mask for the following six hours.”