Federal mask mandate for air travel is over, but wearing one is still the best option

Masks are a minor — yes, minor — inconvenience to protect against COVID-19 in airports bustling with travelers and airplane cabins packed with passengers.

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Passengers wait in line at the security checkpoint at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Tuesday, April 19, 2022, in Arlington, Va.

Passengers wait in line at the security checkpoint at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, on April 19. A federal judge struck down a national mask mandate for airports, airlines and mass transit.

Evan Vucci/AP Photos

It’s up to individuals now to decide whether to wear a mask on airplanes — and since masking up still makes good sense for health, we will.

We urge others to do so as well, even though a federal judge in Florida ruled Monday against the Biden administration’s mask mandate on flights, in airports and on mass transit. Masks are a minor — yes, minor — inconvenience to protect against COVID-19 in airports bustling with travelers from around the globe.

Not to mention the close confines of airplane cabins, packed with passengers breathing in close proximity to one another.

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Major airlines — including O’Hare-based United and Southwest, which has a major hub at Midway — lifted their in-flight mask requirements within hours of U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle’s ruling.

But better to be extra safe and just keep the masks. Why take a chance, when contagious variants are now fueling an uptick in cases across the country?

Yes, there are those videos circulating on social media showing passengers and airline attendants cheering the news.

But most Americans are likely to choose caution: A Harris Poll from early April found that 60% of Americans favored extending the mask mandate, which had recently been extended until May 3 and also applied to mass transit. Monday’s ruling, however, ended the mandate altogether.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday lifted mask requirements for public transit. We suspect lots of passengers will maintain mask-wearing on CTA, Metra and Pace as well.

Swift action in a crisis

In her ruling, Mizelle, a judge from the Middle District of Florida, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exceeded its legal authority when it issued the mandate and failed to follow the required rule-making protocols.

But we have to ask: Isn’t swift, decisive action to protect public health exactly what Americans should expect from government leaders when the nation — the world — is faced with a deadly pandemic?

Surely that’s what Congress expected too, as the Justice Department pointed out previously in a filing defending the mandate. That filing said that the lawsuit challenging the mandate relied on an “unduly narrow and grammatically incorrect” interpretation of the law, and also pointed out that Congress gave public health officials broad authority to make such regulations to prevent the spread of disease.

Consider the circumstances when the mandate was imposed in January 2021 following an executive order by President Joe Biden: That month, over 79,000 people died of COVID-19, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The month before, in December 2020, over 77,000 people died.

Unruly passengers

Mizelle, 35, was appointed to the federal bench by former President Donald Trump and was rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association because of her lack of experience.

It’s possible, though, that the mandate would have been lifted on May 3 regardless of Mizelle’s ruling. Mask mandates for restaurants, theaters and other venues have been lifted, 70% of Americans 5 and up are now fully vaccinated and while COVID-19 cases are on the rise in some areas, hospitalizations and deaths are on the decline.

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Airlines had been lobbying heavily to have the mandate lifted, noting widespread vaccination and high-quality air filtration systems in airplane cabins as mitigating factors. The industry is looking forward to a boost in business from summer air travel, minus the risk of more adult toddlers throwing hissy fits because a flight attendant asked them to please wear a mask.

Since 2021, thousands of adults who ought to know better have cursed at, threatened or even assaulted flight crew members who were just doing their jobs to enforce masking. The Federal Aviation Administration, alarmed at the surge of unruly passenger reports, rightly took a zero-tolerance approach to such cases.

We hope there’s at least one silver lining to Mizelle’s ruling: an end to childish, selfish behavior by passengers more concerned with absurd notions of “freedom” than with health during a pandemic.

In a best-case scenario there’s another silver lining: passengers still wearing masks, to keep flights safe.

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