Court ruling strikes down US transit mask mandate, but not at PHL Airport

Mask confusion: On at the airport, off on airplanes and SEPTA

PHILADELPHIA (AP/KYW Newsradio) — A federal judge in Florida has voided the national mask mandate covering airplanes and other public transportation as exceeding the authority of U.S. health officials in the coronavirus pandemic.

While the mandate is lifted in most transit settings, Philadelphia International Airport travelers must still wear face coverings due to the city's current mask requirement.

The Biden administration said Monday that the rule would not be enforced while federal agencies decide how to respond to the judge's order. The ruling appeared to free operators to make their own decisions about mask requirements.

The New York City subway announced plans to keep a mandate in place, while several airlines announced they would drop theirs on domestic flights, including American Airlines. AA also said it will slowly reintroduce alcohol sales on its flights.

However, inside Philadelphia International Airport, spokeswoman Heather Redfern said Monday, "In accordance with the city’s indoor mask requirements, the airport will be enforcing mask-wearing inside its terminals."

Philadelphia's renewed mask mandate took effect on Monday — the only major city in the U.S. to reinstate the requirement. As such, the airport falls within the city's rules.

Meanwhile, SEPTA, PATCO, Amtrak, NJ Transit and Uber, dropped their requirements, making masks optional. That does include SEPTA stations, even in the city. A spokesperson said all those locations fall under federal jurisdiction, not local, when it comes to masking.

Delta Air Lines said the company would continue to comply with the TSA on mask requirements. The TSA, for its part, declared that Monday's court decision means "the CDC's public transit masking order is not in effect at this time, therefore the TSA will not enforce its security directives," a Biden administration official told CBS News.

The decision Monday by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, also said the CDC improperly failed to justify its decision and did not follow proper rulemaking.

In her 59-page ruling, Mizelle said the only remedy was to vacate the rule entirely because it would be impossible to end it for the limited group of people who objected to it in the lawsuit.

The judge said "a limited remedy would be no remedy at all" and that the courts have full authority to make a decision such as this — even if the goals of the CDC in fighting the virus are laudable.

"Because our system does not permit agencies to act unlawfully even in pursuit of desirable ends, the court declares unlawful and vacates the mask mandate," she wrote.

The Justice Department declined to comment when asked if it would seek an emergency stay to block the judge's order.

The CDC recently extended the mask mandate, which was set to expire Monday, until May 3 to allow more time to study the BA.2 omicron subvariant of the coronavirus that is now responsible for the vast majority of cases in the U.S.

The mask requirement for travelers was the target of months of lobbying from the airlines, which sought to kill it. The carriers argued that effective air filters on modern planes make transmission of the virus during a flight highly unlikely. Republicans in Congress also fought to kill the mandate.

Critics have seized on the fact that states have rolled back rules requiring masks in restaurants, stores and other indoor settings, and yet COVID-19 cases have fallen sharply since the omicron variant peaked in mid-January.

There have been a series of violent incidents on aircraft that have mainly been attributed to disputes over the mask-wearing requirements.

The lawsuit was filed in July 2021 by two plaintiffs and the Health Freedom Defense Fund, described in the judge's order as a nonprofit group that "opposes laws and regulations that force individuals to submit to the administration of medical products, procedures and devices against their will."

Read the court ruling below: