On April 18, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle ruled that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mask mandate for airplanes and public transportation was an unlawful extension of authority. As a result, several major U.S. airlines have since done away with their mask requirements and some passengers have dropped their masks.
When the ruling was made, there was widespread confusion amongst travelers, airlines and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). It was unclear when Judge Mizelle’s ruling would actually be put into effect and what actions airlines would take with the lifted regulations.
While some airlines decided to wait for more certain confirmation, others jumped on the news, with pilots and flight staff making mid-flight announcements or even walking the aisles with garbage bags to collect masks. Videos of passengers erupting into cheers and twirling their masks around in celebration circulated the internet.
The following airlines have made masks optional on their aircrafts: Delta Airlines, United Airlines, JetBlue Airlines, Alaska Airlines (masks are still required on flights to and from Canada), American Airlines (masks are still required on flights to and from Canada, as well as most of Asia), Southwest Airlines and Frontier Airlines.
The news was met with mixed reactions from the general public.
Some people are not ready to say goodbye to masks and may opt to continue wearing masks despite the dropped mandate, according to an April 6 survey conducted by the Harris Poll. A surveying company founded in 1956 and dedicated to tracking public opinion, the Harris Poll found that 60% of the 2,000 polled U.S. adults were in support of an extension of the mask mandate.
In an April 24 survey, researchers at The Harris Poll found that about 66 percent of respondents were very or somewhat concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic, while about 34 percent said they were not too or not at all concerned.
For some, the end of the mask mandate came as a surprise. Not even a full week before Judge Mizelle’s ruling, on April 13, the CDC had decided to extend the mask mandate to May 3 in an effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19 variants, including the Omicron variant.
"Since early April 2022, there have been increases in the 7-day moving average of Covid-19 cases in the United States. ... TSA will continue to coordinate closely with CDC and communicate any changes to this requirement with the public." the TSA said in a statement.
The Biden administration has said that they may appeal the decision if the CDC deems it necessary to protect public health.
"Public health decisions shouldn't be made by the courts. They should be made by public health experts," White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said.
Throughout April, the daily number of new COVID-19 cases has varied. In the days following April 18 (when the mask mandate was lifted), there was an increase in new cases, but it cannot be determined if the absence of masks on public transportation is responsible. Between April 1 and April 29, the number of new cases per day more than tripled. On April 30, however, numbers dropped to only 23,232 new cases.
Judge Mizelle’s lifting of the mask mandate comes as the TSA has been seeing the number of travelers grow closer to pre-pandemic times.
On April 30, 2019, long before COVID-19 brought the world to a sudden halt, the TSA had recorded just under 2 million people traveling. Three years later, on April 30, 2022, the TSA recorded about 1.88 million people traveling, which is a huge increase from the 134,261 recorded travelers on April 30, 2020.
For more information about COVID-19 travel regulations and recommendations, visit https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/travel-during-covid19.html.