A US judge has halted the Biden administration’s mask requirement for passengers on public transport, which officials extended just days ago in an effort to quell a recent rise in Covid-19 cases.
The ruling on Monday from Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, who was appointed to the federal bench in Florida by former president Donald Trump, is the latest of the administration’s coronavirus mitigation measures to be overruled by a conservative judge.
Mizelle said in her decision that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had exceeded its legal authority, improperly skipped the public notice and comment period and failed to offer a sufficient explanation for doing so.
The CDC did not respond to a request to comment.
Mask requirements have become one of the most politically fraught policy responses to the pandemic in the US, with Democrats generally backing them and Republicans opposed. Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, even passed an order last year banning schools from implementing their own mask mandates.
Most state and local health authorities have ended their mandates, though a recent rise in infections has prompted Philadelphia to reimpose one. The CDC also extended by 15 days its rules for passengers on public transport, including on aircraft.
The CDC rules were challenged in court by a group called the Health Freedom Defense Fund, which is run by Leslie Manookian, an activist who has previously questioned the safety of vaccines.
The group is one of a number that challenged a range of public health policies put in place by the Biden administration, including its proposed order requiring most private sector employees to get vaccinated or test weekly. That mandate was abandoned after it was blocked by the Supreme Court earlier this year.
Mizelle agreed with Health Freedom Defense Fund on a range of issues, including that mask wearing should not count as “sanitation” — which would put it under the CDC’s authority — as sanitation only applies to cleaning measures.
“Wearing a mask cleans nothing,” Mizelle wrote. “At most, it traps virus droplets. But it neither ‘sanitizes’ the person wearing the mask nor ‘sanitizes’ the conveyance.”
Mizelle, who once clerked for conservative US Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, was a contentious pick to serve as a federal judge. She was nominated in 2020 at the age of 33 and faced strong opposed from Democrats, who boycotted her confirmation hearing in protest.
The American Bar Association said at the time Mizelle was unqualified for the job because she had not been a lawyer for 12 years or more, and had not taken the lead in trying any cases.