A masked traveler asks for a rapid COVID-19 test result at the Los Angeles International Airport on December 23. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo
April 18 (UPI) -- A federal judge in Florida on Monday struck down the Biden administration's mandate requiring that travelers on airlines and public transportation wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, a 2020 appointee of former President Donald Trump, ruled in a 59-page opinion issued in Tampa, Fla., that the mask mandate, first enacted in February 2021, is unconstitutional.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week extended the mandate for 15 days through May 3, citing a sharp increase in the seven-day moving average of COVID-19 cases.
New cases have jumped by 36% during the last two weeks to nearly 35,000 infections per day, due mainly to the more contagious omicron BA.2 subvariant, according to CDC data.
Mizelle ruled the administration lacks the statutory power to impose the mask mandate under the 1944 Public Health Service Act, which allows the government to impose restrictions in the interest of "sanitation."
She did not agree with the administration's argument that the definition of "sanitation" gives it the leeway to impose travel restrictions.
"A power to improve 'sanitation' would easily extend to requiring vaccinations against COVID-19, the seasonal flu, or other diseases. Or to mandatory social distancing, coughing-into-elbows, and daily multivitamins," Mizelle wrote.
Wearing a mask, she wrote, "cleans nothing. At most, it traps virus droplets. But it neither 'sanitizes' the person wearing the mask nor 'sanitizes' the conveyance."
The mask mandate, she ruled, was "arbitrary and capricious."
Opposition to the transportation mandates have been mounting among airline industry leaders, Republican officials and even some congressional Democrats.
Last month, CEOs of all major U.S. airlines wrote a letter to the Biden administration asking that the mask mandates stop.
"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, despite none of these venues having the protective air filtration system that aircraft do," the business executives wrote.
Airlines have contended with greatly increased instances of violent and disruptive passenger behavior, much of which has centered around disagreements over mask mandates. There have been 1,150 reports of unruly passengers so far this year, with 744 of the incidents related to masks, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
In a quick response to Monday's ruling, Alaska Airlines announced wearing masks was now "optional" on its U.S. domestic flights.
"It has been a long 24 months with nearly constant change. I could not be prouder of our frontline employees who have handled every pivot focusing on safety and the care we're known for," airline vice president Max Tidwell said in an issued statement.
"We're also thankful for our guests who remained considerate, patient and stood by us throughout every twist and turn," he added.
A group of 21 states, most led by Republicans, sued the government last month seeking to end the mask requirement.
The announcement was made at a news conference held by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who said the mandate is hurting tourism in his state.