COVID is being treated as “over” by most in the United States. Mask regulations are largely suspended around the country, even as BA.2 infection numbers are beginning to rise. The last bastion of COVID restrictions, for better or worse, is public transportation. More specifically, airports and airplanes.
The CDC has come close to rescinding the mask mandate a few times but, despite pleas from airline CEOs, pilot unions, and flight attendant groups, last week the mask mandate was extended through May 2, 2022.
Obligatory caveat that airplanes use hospital-grade filtration systems to clean the air in their planes, which is completely recycled through the aforementioned filters every few minutes
Today everything might have changed. US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle overturned the CDC order, writing in a ruling that the order “exceeds the CDC’s authority and violates the procedures for agency rulemaking”.
…so what does that actually mean?
Nothing has changed…yet
If you are flying this evening or tomorrow, you will still be required to wear a mask. The federal government has a right to appeal the ruling and is no doubt evaluating its legal options.
Here’s the thing though: should they appeal or is this actually a gift to the Biden administration?
DISCLAIMER: I am not a lawyer. I am not an epidemiologist. I am not a politician. I’m simply a dude who has a travel blog that has kept your attention to this point. I have very complicated opinions about masks and believe that people should be given the option to wear them aboard planes and in airports, just so my biases are disclosed. What follows is simply my read of the situation.
The difference between legalities and the politics
COVID was politicized pretty much from Day One by both political parties in the USA, and similarly around the world. “Personal Freedom!” versus “Reasonable Accommodations!” were heard all over social media (often using non-family-friendly words that I will not repeat on this blog). Too often, the wearing of a mask or flashing of a vaccination card was a litmus test to show that You Were Taking This Seriously.
If we face the facts, this world threw everything it had at COVID and little of it mattered. Masks didn’t stop the spread because it’s hard and expensive to wear a proper mask properly. Vaccines didn’t stop the spread, although they probably kept many people away from hospitals and morgues. Travel bans didn’t work, nor re-entry testing policies (the Biden administration has still shown little interest in getting rid of the useless and expensive re-entry testing for US citizens, sadly).
So why would the Biden administration be excited about this?
The Biden administration should be incredibly excited about the ruling that came down today, at least from a political perspective. Why? A very simple reason: they are not the ones making the decision. They do not have to make the very tough decision and then stand by it when numbers increase this summer (which they will, no matter whether we are wearing masks or not). Mid-term elections are coming up in November, and Republicans are expecting to take over both houses of US Congress. Democrats do not need any more bad news for which they are responsible.
Let’s posit that this judge’s ruling sticks and the mask mandate is rescinded. Let’s also posit that COVID numbers will increase this summer, which again will likely happen no matter boosters or masks or anything else we throw at it (pandemic gonna pandemic).
What does the response look like if the Biden administration lifted the mandate on their own? The headlines write themselves, “BIDEN IS TRYING TO KILL US ALL I CAN’T BELIEVE HE THOUGHT IT WAS SAFE TO BE ON AN AIRPLANE AROUND PEOPLE WITHOUT MASKS” and gives Republicans all the political ammunition they need to take advantage of the situation for mid-term elections.
How does that change if the administration decides to abide by the ruling today? Biden can honestly go in front of constituents and tell them he and his fellow Democrats did everything they could to Keep People Safe but the courts did what they did so the administration’s hands were tied. Oh, and they’ll probably mention that the judge was appointed by, you guessed it: Donald Trump.
One situation gives them ownership of a situation they cannot manage. The other situation gives them deniability.
There is one thing that is for certain, though…
I cannot imagine any presidential administration would want to appeal this to a circuit court or the US Supreme Court. If Judge Mizelle’s ruling was upheld at the circuit and Supreme Court, it could drastically change the ability of this and future administrations to make rules during crazy times. It’s not a risk I imagine either political party would want to take. It would be better for them to abide by the judge’s ruling to keep their mid-term political playing cards in their hand.
Regardless of what happens, read this.
When masks are no longer required on planes and in airports, many people will still choose to wear them. If you are one of the people wanting masks to go away, here’s a friendly reminder that these people are exercising their personal freedom, just like you are when you decide not to wear your mask (assuming it’s optional to, at some point). No need to spike the football or anything like that or be unkind to people for any reason.
When in doubt, be the type of traveler you’d like to sit next to on a plane.