States Sue US Over Continued Mask Mandate

Twenty-one states led by Florida this week filed a lawsuit in a U.S. district court against several U.S. agencies to throw out the federal mask mandate that has been in effect in airports, on airplanes and on all public transportation since January 2021, when the Biden administration implemented the mandate as an official federal regulation.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently extended the mask mandate on airlines and public transportation, which was set to expire on March 18. The new expiration date is set for April 18, and the new lawsuit may pressure the administration to let the mandate expire.

The suit, filed in the Tampa Division of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, claims overreach by the CDC, the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services as well as the Transportation Security Administration, alleging the agencies have relied on prior narrow statutes to impose “economy-wide mask requirements… at transportation hubs and while traveling on non-private conveyances which include aircrafts, trains, road vehicles and ships.”

The states pointed to economic harm caused by the mandates, invoking the cruise industry and destinations that rely on that industry to support local commerce as an example.

According to data firm Statista, major cruise lines’ full-year 2021 revenue remained close to 90 percent below 2019 levels, even after the CDC allowed a six-month no-sail order to expire in October 2020 and defined a path to begin cruising again in 2021 with a mask mandate in place. The CDC allowed federal masking requirements for cruise ships to expire on Jan. 15 this year, and cruise lines individually began to ease their own masking rules in March.

The lawsuit leaned into the terminology of “economy-wide mandates” to characterize the ongoing mask mandate on airlines and public transportation and cited the Supreme Court ruling in a suit brought in August 2021 regarding the CDC’s moratorium on evictions to support its characterization. It also pointed to recent carveouts like public school buses, for which the CDC lifted masking requirements in February. Attorneys for the plaintiffs also emphasized potential effects of masking on young children, including widely debunked claims like “reduced oxygenation.”

It’s unlikely that the ongoing masking mandate for airlines alone has impeded the industry’s recovery. TSA checkpoint numbers in recent months are within 10 percent to 15 percent of 2019 volumes and occasionally have surpassed 2019 volumes on specific days. That said, airlines, which individually imposed masking requirements for crews and passengers starting in May 2020, are now imploring the Biden administration to allow the mask mandates to expire on April 18.

A strongly worded letter signed by multiple airline CEOs states the mandates have outlived their usefulness. The letter goes further, however, in also pushing the administration to ease Covid-19 testing requirements for international travelers, citing recent changes in the UK and the European Union to lift Covid-19 travel restrictions.

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