By Emma Reilly
Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle — a federal judge in Florida — struck down the mask requirement for travelers utilizing public transportation on April 18.
Mizelle’s decision both puts travelers at risk and diminishes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ability to make overarching decisions regarding the nation’s health and safety.
According to CNN, “Mizelle said the mandate was unlawful because it exceeded the statutory authority of the CDC and because its implementation violated administrative law.”
Less than a week prior to Mizelle’s decision, the CDC extended the mandate until May 3. Mizelle’s ruling negated this extension, giving airlines and transit agencies the authority to individually implement or eliminate mask regulations.
Following Mizelle’s ruling, many transit companies and agencies lifted their mask requirements. Late that same day, “the nation’s largest airlines had dropped their mask requirements for domestic flights [and] the Amtrak rail system said passengers and employees would no longer need to wear masks,” Charlie Savage and Heather Murphy with The New York Times said.
There are health implications inherent to lifting mask mandates for domestic travelers. Many modes of public transportation are crowded and poorly ventilated, making them the ideal breeding ground for viruses like COVID-19.
“Governments and businesses across the nation have largely loosened precautions, and now new known COVID-19 cases are sharply rising again,” Savage and Murphy said.
Mizelle’s decision will only contribute to this problem. With case numbers rising, maskless travelers will both be at risk and putting others at risk of COVID-19.
Concerns related to COVID-19 are pressing enough that the federal government plans to appeal Mizelle’s decision.
The mask mandate for public transportation “remains necessary to protect the public health,” Department of Justice spokesperson Anthony Coley said.
With this fact in mind, DOJ officials announced their intention to appeal the ruling on April 20. However, despite the government’s seeming determination to overturn the decision, the push for appeal is slow to move forward.
“The [DOJ] still hasn’t asked the judge to put a temporary pause on her far-reaching decision while the legal process plays out,” NPR’s Selena Simmons-Duffin said.
This is frustrating, considering the broader implication of Mizelle’s ruling.
“The district court judge reinterpreted the law to take away CDC’s power — to say the CDC could not impose a mask mandate,” Matthew Lawrence — a law professor and former DOJ employee — said in an interview with NPR.
This so-called reinterpretation could prevent the CDC from making decisions related to public health that span nationwide, both now and in the future.
“The biggest issue with this appeal, Lawrence says, is the question of who has the power to decide what public health measures are needed,” NPR said.
The elimination of the mask mandate on public transportation makes it seem as though that power should lie with individual companies and agencies, rather than with the federal government or the CDC.
According to its website, the CDC “continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings at this time.”
In the grand scheme of COVID-19 policies, however, recommendations — as opposed to mandates — are ultimately ineffective because they are not accompanied by enforcement.
During a pandemic, overarching policies informed by scientific data are necessary. Furthermore, standardly enforceable policies allow for the United States to approach health crises in an effective, unified way.
Mizelle’s repeal of the mask mandate for domestic travelers puts Americans at unnecessary risk, at a time when COVID-19 case numbers are increasing. Even more concerning, her decision could impede the federal government and the CDC’s abilities to manage major health crises in the future.
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Featured Photo Caption: Travelers are no longer required to wear masks on public transportation, thought the CDC still recommends it.