Masks move from mandatory to voluntary in many places following court decision

April 19, 2022
A Florida judge vacated the U.S. federal mask mandate, saying CDC exceeded its statutory authority.

A U.S. District Court judge in Florida vacated the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requirement that masks be worn by employees and customers of airlines and shared transportation modes on April 18, 2022.

The mandate was set to expire on April 18, but it was extended for 15 days until May 3 to give CDC time to “assess the potential impact the recent rise of COVID-19 cases has on severe disease.”

Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle concluded the mask mandate “exceeded the CDC’s statutory authority, improperly invoked the good cause exception to notice and comment rulemaking and failed to adequately explain its decisions.”

White House Press Secretary Jennifer Psaki called the ruling “a disappointing decision” during a press briefing Monday afternoon and added the recommendation is that people continue to wear masks.

Late Monday evening, Transportation Security Administration issued a statement on the ruling that it would not enforce the mandate, “…effective immediately, TSA will no longer enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs. TSA will also rescind the new Security Directives that were scheduled to take effect tomorrow. CDC continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings at this time.”

As of press time, there has been no word on if the U.S. Department of Justice will appeal the decision.

The ruling and lack of immediate guidance from the administration on what, if any, counter action in the form of an appeal would be taken left some level of confusion within the industry, but by the evening of April 18, several systems had issued statements on what riders could expect starting April 19.

Initially, King County Metro and Sound Transit said mask use would remain a requirement based on the potential for an appeal to be filed. However, an updated statement from Puget Sound transit agencies, including King County Metro, Sound Transit, Community Transit, Everett Transit, Kitsap Transit, Pierce Transit, Seattle Department of Transportation (Seattle Streetcar) and Seattle Center Monorail, said masks would be optional starting April 19. 

Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority sent a tweet that mask requirements “remain status quo” but added “stay tuned for updates.”

Judge Mizelle’s opinion noted CDC does not have authority over travel within states and said the CDC’s interpretation of its statutory power “extends far beyond it to population-wide preventative measures like near-universal mask requirements that apply even in settings with little nexus to interstate disease spread, like city buses and Ubers. Such a definition reverses the import of history as well as the roles of the states and the federal government.”

This return of decisions to local authorities is why Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will keep its requirement to use masks in place. MTA noted a March determination from the New York State Department of Health remains in effect. The determination requires the use of masks in certain indoor settings including healthcare settings, adult care settings, correctional facilities, homeless shelters and public transportation and transportation hubs.

Other transit systems are doing away with mask requirements and making their use optional. Knoxville Area Transit, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) all announced masks would become optional on their vehicles and within their transit hubs.

“Our mask mandate has been based on federal guidance,” said WMATA General Manager and Chief Executive Officer Paul J. Wiedefeld. “We will continue to monitor this situation as it unfolds, but masks will be optional on Metro property until further notice.”

Amtrak is also allowing masks to become optional, but the railroad noted “masks are welcome and remain an important preventive measure against COVID-19. Anyone needing or choosing to wear one is encouraged to do so.”

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Due to the fast developments of this situation, it is recommended to check with your local transit provider to review what mask guidance is in place.

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Story updated April 19; 1:00 p.m. to incorporate updated statement from Puget Sound region agencies. 

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.