A flight attendant on a Delta Airlines flight

Flight attendants hand out refreshments to a packed Delta Airlines flight traveling from Ronald Regan National Airport to Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport on Friday, May 21, 2021. (Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Right-Wing Judge Kills CDC Mask Mandate for Travel

"No peer nation would tolerate such a power-drunk juristocracy," said one critic. "Our system is badly broken."

A federal judge on Monday struck down the Biden administration's mask mandate for public transportation, which has required one to wear a protective face covering while waiting for and traveling on planes, trains, and buses.

"There should be a mandatory course in public health in our nation's law schools."

Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, appointed by former President Donald Trump to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, declared the public health order unlawful, writing that it exceeds the statutory authority of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and violates the procedures for agency rulemaking under the Administrative Procedure Act.

"There should be a mandatory course in public health in our nation's law schools," said Dr. Peter Hotez, part of the team behind a patent-free Covid-19 vaccine.

"Try explaining to your friends in other liberal democracies that a single unelected, life-tenured, 35-year-old judge just abolished the air travel mask mandate for the entire country," tweeted journalist Mark Joseph Stern. "No peer nation would tolerate such a power-drunk juristocracy. Our system is badly broken."

It remains unclear how quickly Mizelle's ruling will take effect at airports, train stations, and bus depots nationwide or if the Department of Justice will attempt to appeal her decision, which stems from a lawsuit brought by the conservative group Health Freedom Defense Fund and a pair of Florida residents.

"A Trump-appointed judge is obstructing our pandemic response and putting the most vulnerable at risk," Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) tweeted. "Republicans already are blocking Covid relief, and now Trump's failed legacy is risking the well-being of seniors, the immunocompromised, and people with disabilities."

Laurie Garrett, author of The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, wrote on social media that "unless the U.S. Supreme Court reverses this, virus prevention is in free fall." The high court ruled 6-3 to void the Biden administration's vaccine-or-test rule for large private employers at the height of the Omicron surge in January.

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Just last week, the CDC had extended its now-vacated mask mandate for public transportation through May 3, pointing to the rising number of coronavirus infections driven by BA.2, an ultra-contagious Omicron subvariant.

Before the measure was invalidated by a lone right-wing judge, a progressive coalition called the People's CDC urged the nation's leading public health authority, the Transportation Security Administration, and the White House to "prioritize the health of the people over the preferences of corporate executives, and extend the federal mask mandate for public transportation beyond May 3."

"Although we welcome the CDC's recent announcement to extend the mandate for two weeks, we strongly recommend that the mandate stays in place for longer, until there is a sustained period of low Covid transmission," said the group, which includes scientists, healthcare workers, and public health practitioners. "While the pandemic is ongoing and Covid continues to pose a threat, mask mandates are an essential policy that helps keep society open and accessible to everyone."

The coalition continued:

Millions of Americans, including people of color, people with low incomes, and people with disabilities or who are immunocompromised, rely on public transportation as their only way to get to work, or access healthcare and other essential services. At a time when Covid rates are increasing or remain high in many places, dropping the mask mandate for public transportation will further shift the burden of risk to the communities who are already most impacted by Covid. People should not have to face the impossible choice between accessing the services they need to survive, or risk contracting a virus that can cause serious illness.

High-quality masks such as N95, KN95, and KF94, when worn correctly, are very effective at preventing Covid transmission in enclosed environments such as buses, trains, and airplanes. While high-quality masks offer some protection to individual wearers, universal masking is the most effective way to protect everyone from infection, including those at higher-risk, transit workers, and children too young to be vaccinated.

The majority of Americans support masking, and as Covid rates rise around the country due to the BA.2 Omicron variant, it is critical that decision-makers renew or reinstate mask mandates, and ensure that high-quality masks are made free and accessible to all.

Covid-19 killed more than 3,100 people in the U.S. last week. The nation's official Covid-19 death toll is approaching one million--nearly one-sixth of the world's 6.2 million deaths and counting from the disease. Epidemiologists estimate that the pandemic has contributed to upwards of 20 million excess deaths overall.

This piece has been updated with comment from Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

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