© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Travelers wearing protective face masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) reclaim their luggage at the airport in Denver, Colorado, U.S., November 24, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Mohatt/File Photo
By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A federal judge in Florida said on Monday a U.S. mask mandate on public transportation is unlawful, overturning a Biden administration effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Last week, U.S. health officials extended by 15 days the mandate requiring travelers to wear masks on airplanes, trains, and in taxis, ride-share vehicles or transit hubs, saying they needed time to assess the impact of a recent rise in COVID-19 cases.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, an appointee of President Donald Trump, came in a lawsuit filed last year in Tampa, Florida, by a group called the Health Freedom Defense Fund.
Judge Mizelle said the CDC had exceeded its authority with the mandate, had not sought public comment and did not adequately explain its decisions.
The judge sent the issue back to the CDC. It was not clear whether the judge’s order would take immediate effect and the Transportation Security Administration’s order for the mask mandate appeared to still be in effect.
The White House called the ruling “disappointing,” and said it is continuing to review information related to the order.
“We’re continuing to recommend people wear masks,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters.
The TSA and Federal Aviation Administration declined to comment. The White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not immediately comment.
The CDC first issued a public health order requiring masks in interstate transportation in February 2021. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) issued a security directive to enforce the CDC order.
Industry groups and Republican lawmakers had wanted the administration to immediately end the 14-month-old mask mandate last week.
The ruling could create confusion on airplanes where the mask mandate has caused a surge in incidents and altercations between airline officials enforcing the mandate and passengers rejecting the demand they cover their faces.
The Federal Aviation Administration said that since January 2021, there have been a record 7,060 unruly passenger incidents reported – and 70% involved masking rules.
After the ruling, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, urged “calm and consistency in the airports and on planes. The last thing we need for workers on the frontlines or passengers traveling today is confusion and chaos.”
Airlines for America had last week urged the Biden administration “to lean into science and research, which clearly support lifting the mask mandate. It makes no sense to require masks on a plane when masks are not recommended in places like restaurants, bars or crowded sports facilities.”
The group, which represents major U.S. passenger airlines, did not have an immediate comment on Monday’s ruling.
The U.S. Senate voted 57-40 last month to overturn the public health order requiring masks on airplanes and other forms of public transportation, drawing a veto threat from Biden.