Say Goodbye to Masks While Traveling: Federal Judge Strikes Down Mask Mandate for Planes and Public Transit

As anyone who has traveled in the past year knows, the Biden Administration issued a mask mandate for airplanes and other public transport methods in January of 2021 in an attempt to help slow the spread of Covid, and to protect transport workers. This mandate remained in place despite infection numbers going down and mask mandates being lifted in schools, restaurants, and other indoor activities, but now it looks like they are a thing of the past. A federal judge in Florida has ruled that mask mandates for travel are unlawful and has struck them down, meaning that everyone can now make the choice whether or not to mask up while traveling on any form of transport.  

Masks Are Now Optionalhand throwing a mask into a trash can

In her ruling, US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle stated that the mask mandate was unlawful, and violated administrative law. In the 59-page ruling, Judge Mizelle wrote “Wearing a mask cleans nothing. At most, it traps virus droplets. But it neither ‘sanitizes’ the person wearing the mask nor ‘sanitizes’ the conveyance.”

She also wrote that “the mandate is best understood not as sanitation, but as an exercise of the CDC’s power to conditionally release individuals to travel despite concerns that they may spread a communicable disease (and to detain or partially quarantine those who refuse). But the power to conditionally release and detain is ordinarily limited to individuals entering the United States from a foreign country.”

Following the ruling, several US airlines — Delta, United, and Southwest among them — said masks are now optional on their aircraft. In a statement, Alaska Airlines said that passengers whose behavior was “particularly egregious” over the past two years in objecting to the mandate will remain banned from flying on the airline, “even after the mask policy is rescinded.”

International Flights

back of a woman standing in an airport
When traveling internationally, you might have to wear a mask, depending on the country’s rules.

Although the mask mandate has ended in the US, that does not mean that other countries are not requiring masks to travel. That means it’s important to be aware of the rules for each country you travel to, and respect those rules when traveling on foreign flights. In the meantime, you can keep yourself safe by wearing a mask if you so choose, and by getting vaccinated and/or boosted

The Biden Administration’s Stance

The Biden Administration seems to be accepting the decision, although they are hinting that they are not in agreement with the removal of the mandate. According to one official, “The agencies are reviewing the decision and assessing potential next steps. In the meantime, today’s court decision means CDC’s public transportation masking order is not in effect at this time. Therefore, TSA will not enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs at this time. CDC recommends that people continue to wear masks in indoor public transportation settings.”

Yet Another New Covid-19 Variant Is Spreading Across The US

Just when we thought things were returning to normal, a new Covid-19 variant has reared its ugly head. The variant known as BA.2 was first detected months ago, and is spreading quickly across the U.S. According to the CDC, this new variant is becoming the dominant strain of Covid, since it has been doubling each week for the past month. So what can we expect from this new strain?

The Spread of BA.2

red virus with a network connected in the background

This new Covid-19 variant, BA.2, is even more transmissible than the strain that came before it, the omicron variant. It made up 3% of cases in NJ and NY at the end of the week of March 12,  up 25% from the previous week! In the West, it has accounted for 27.7% of cases, up 17.1%.

But, while it’s clear that this new variant is more transmissible than others that came before it, what is unclear is if this new variant is more lethal than previous ones. “We often don’t know until it’s too late,” said Stephanie Silvera, an infectious disease specialist at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey. “That’s been the problem with managing these surges. Deaths are one of the last impacts we see.”

“It’s difficult to predict how Covid-19 variants or any other emerging respiratory virus will evolve over time and what their specific impacts will be,” said Dr. Tina Tan, New Jersey state epidemiologist. “And it is hard to predict whether a surge in BA.2 will translate to increased hospitalizations or deaths at this time.”

Will the Vaccine Protect Against BA.2?

According to British scientists, the current vaccines have been shown to be effective in preventing severe illness from the new strain, but they might not prevent infection. Some experts are remaining hopeful, though. 

“…Hopefully, we won’t see a surge. I don’t think we will,” Chief Medical Advisor to the president Dr. Anthony Fauci said. “The easiest way to prevent that is to continue to get people vaccinated, and for those who have been vaccinated to continue to get boosted.”

Will We Go Back To A Mask Mandate?different colored masks

As of now, Dr. Fauci also does not think that mask mandates need to be reinstated. “If we do see a significant surge, particularly one that might result in increased hospitalizations, we have to be prepared to pivot and perhaps reinstitute some of those restrictions,” he said. “But right now, at this point, I don’t see that.”

Mask Mandate Removed For The Fully Vaccinated

There is finally light at the end of the long and dreary pandemic tunnel, as more and more adults get vaccinated against Covid-19. Case numbers are falling, and now recent studies are showing that the vaccines are effective against two Covid variants circulating in the country. Because of this hopeful news, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a statement that the mask mandate and social distancing are no longer necessary in most situations for those who are fully vaccinated. Lifting mask mandates could be a way to show Americans that the vaccines are effective, which will hopefully motivate more people to get vaccinated.

Decreasing Numbers

red bar graph going in a downward motion with an arrow going down over the bars
The daily Covid-19 deaths and hospitalizations have been decreasing as more people get vaccinated.

In the U.S., the numbers of new Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have been decreasing as more people get the vaccine. In the most recent 7 day average, new cases fell about 23%, with daily deaths declining to 587 per day. “Today, Covid-19 deaths are at the lowest point since April 2020,” Andy Slavitt, the White House Covid-19 adviser, said Thursday in a news briefing.“The trends are all going down because vaccines are making a big difference,” said Dr. Isaac Weisfuse, a medical epidemiologist at Cornell University and former New York City deputy health commissioner. “The fewer people you have who are susceptible, the more likely the trends will keep going down.”

The Effectiveness of The Vaccines

These declining numbers seem to prove the effectiveness of the Covid-19 vaccines against both the original strain of Covid-19 and the different variations that have been spreading. Recent U.S.-based studies, published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, show a very high success rate. One study shows that Covid-19 vaccines are 90% effective at preventing both symptomatic and asymptomatic infection among nearly 4,000 front-line workers. The second study found the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are 94% effective at preventing Covid-19-related-hospitalizations among people 65 and older who have been fully vaccinated.

Scientists have made it clear that people who are fully vaccinated can still get infected, but these “breakthrough” cases are very rare. In fact, out of the more than 117 million people in the U.S. who are fully vaccinated, only a little over 9,245 people (or 0.00007%) have tested positive for the virus after being fully vaccinated.

CDC Guidelines

While the lifting of the mask mandate means we are one step closer to returning to “normal,” vaccinated people must still:

row of people sitting on a plane

  • Wear masks in crowded indoor settings like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons, and homeless shelters.
  • Wear a mask where it is required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance. Children up to the age of 12, who are not yet eligible for the vaccine, still have to wear masks. 
  • Get tested following a known exposure if they are employees or residents of a correctional facility or homeless shelter.

Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases acknowledged that people such as store or restaurant owners will have to trust others to unmask responsibly. “They will not be able to know,” he said. “I mean, you’re going to be depending on people being honest enough to say whether they were vaccinated or not.”

Recent CDC data show that only 46% of US adults are fully vaccinated, but there is hope that lifting the mask mandate will show how effective the vaccines are. President Biden also expressed his hopes, and urged more people to get vaccinated. “If you are fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask,” he said, summarizing the new guidance and encouraging more Americans to roll up their sleeves. “Get vaccinated – or wear a mask until you do.”

In addition to lifting the mask mandate, the CDC has also changed other guidelines for those who are fully vaccinated. According to the CDC, people who are fully vaccinated can travel domestically without quarantining, do not have to test before leaving the U.S., do not have to test or quarantine if they are exposed to someone with the virus, and can refrain from routine screening.

Biden Signs Executive Orders First Day In Office

On January 20, 2021, Joseph R. Biden, Jr. was sworn into office, making him the 46th President of the United States. Just hours after becoming President, Biden signed more than a dozen executive orders, some reversing former President Trump’s policies. Biden stressed that he wants to work with both parties in Congress in order to get his policies moving.

“There’s no time to start like today,” Biden told reporters in the Oval Office as he began signing a stack of orders and memoranda. “I’m going to start by keeping the promises I made to the American people.”

The executive orders Biden signed last Wednesday include:

woman with a blue mask on with white polka dots
President Biden signed an executive order for a mask mandate within federal buildings. 
  1. A mask mandate on federal property– Masks and physical distancing will be required in federal buildings, on federal lands and by government contractors. President Biden also urged state and local governments to have similar requirements, and asked that all  Americans wear masks for the next 100 days.
  2. The U.S.’s rentry into the World Health Organization (WHO)– Biden reversed Trump’s move to withdraw the country from the WHO, with Dr. Anthony Fauci being named head of the delegation to the WHO.
  3. The creation of a Covid-19 Office– Biden created a White House Covid-19 response team that will report directly to him. The team will focus on managing efforts to produce and distribute vaccines, masks, gloves and medical equipment, expand testing capacity, and reopen schools. 
  4. An extension of the foreclosure and eviction moratoriums– Biden extended the nationwide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures until at least March 31.
  5. A freeze on student debt collection– Biden directed the Education Department to continue to freeze monthly payments and interest on most federal student loans until “at least” the end of September.
  6. The U.S. will rejoin Paris climate accords– Biden reversed Trump’s exit last year from the Paris climate accord, which aims to push all countries to slash greenhouse gas emissions. It will take 30 days to rejoin the pact.
  7. The revoking of the Keystone XL pipeline permit- Biden revoked the presidential permit for the $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline that would transport fossil fuels from Canada across the U.S. The order will also work towards restoring protections and banning drilling in several national parks and national monuments, and setting stricter emissions and fuel economy standards for vehicles.
  8. A reversal of the 1776 Commission– Biden dismantled the 1776 Commission, a project aimed at promoting a more conservative history curriculum in U.S. schools. His executive order will also direct contractors and grant recipients to include diversity training and prevent workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
  9. A reversal of Trump’s changes to the Census– Biden reversed Trump’s efforts to exclude undocumented immigrations from the U.S. census.a magnifying glass over the words "mulsims banned"
  10. The abolition of the “Muslim Ban”– Biden got rid of the Trump administration’s ban on people from several majority Muslim countries entering the U.S. The order also instructs the State Department to restart visa processing for the countries affected by the ban.
  11. An effort to strengthen legal protections for immigrants- Biden directed the Secretary of Homeland Security to take actions to fortify the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that shielded hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation.
  12. A reversal of Trump’s expansion of immigration enforcement- Biden revoked Trump’s executive order that broadened the categories of who should be detained and deported.
  13. The halting of construction of the Mexico border wall– Biden terminated the national emergency declaration used to fund the U.S.-Mexico border wall.
  14. An extension of deportation deferrals for Liberians- Biden signed an order extending the Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) designation for Liberians who have been in the United States for many years until June 30, 2022, shielding them from deportation and extending their work authorizations.
  15. An implementation of an ethics pledge for all executive branch officials- Biden signed an ethics pledge and ordered every appointee in the executive branch to do the same. The ethics pledge will ban them from acting in their own personal interest and will require them to uphold the independence of the Department of Justice.
  16. A freeze on Trump’s “midnight regulations”– Biden signed an order that will freeze all Trump administration regulations currently in process, blocking them from taking effect while the new administration reviews them.

    person in an airport with a mask on rolling his luggage.
    One of Biden’s executive orders will require people to wear masks in airports, trains, and intercity buses.

Executive Orders signed on January 21 and 22:

  • Mask Mandate For Travel- Requires the wearing of masks in airports and on certain modes of transportation, including many trains, airplanes, maritime vessels and intercity buses.
  • Food Assistance– Biden asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow states to increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits by 15%, ordering that families with 3 children be given an extra $300 every 2 months to help subsidize grocery shopping.
  • Raise Federal Minimum Wage– Biden laid down groundwork to expand protections for federal workers, by improving collective bargaining rights and promoting a $15 hourly minimum wage.