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Cheers and fears as US ends mask mandates for travel

A federal judge in Florida overturned the national mask mandate for travelers put in place in January of 20-21 to prevent the spread of COVID-19. KPBS reporter Kitty Alvarado tells us what that means for our local airports and mass transit systems.

A federal judge's decision to strike down a national mask mandate was met with cheers on some airplanes but also concern about whether it's really time to end one of the most visible vestiges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The major airlines and many of the busiest airports rushed to drop their requirements on Monday after the Transportation Security Administration announced it wouldn’t enforce a January 2021 security directive that applied to airplanes, airports, taxis and other mass transit.

But the ruling still gave those entities the option to keep their mask rules in place, resulting in directives that could vary from city to city.


For San Diegan David Morrison, this ruling makes no difference. "We still are in a pandemic, I am not going to go riding on the bus, the trolley, public transportation, the airlines and take my mask off, just because everybody is saying, 'oh, it’s fine to do that,' I don’t trust it," said Morrison.

To be clear, the trolley run by the Metropolitan Transit System still requires masks, but the North County Transit District does not. This shows why the federal ruling is sure to confuse people. It allows every transit system to make their own rules.

James Wrightsman, from San Diego, said he doesn’t like wearing a mask and thinks it should be a personal choice. "I think people can continue to use them if they want to and I know other countries have been using it for years and so I kind of think that’s how it should be, if you feel you need an extra layer of protection, bring it," he said.

San Diego International Airport is packed and almost back to pre-pandemic crowds.
While you can hear the loudspeakers announce CDC's COVID social distancing measures, wearing a mask is optional in the concourses. But looking around the terminals, it’s a mixed bag, with the majority of people not wearing masks.

"I’m just happy to be able to fly without a mask for once, yeah just looking forward to that and being able to breathe a little bit easier," said a maskless Nick Heene.


For Marc Pattison, from Washington, it's a different story. He's traveling with his wife and two small children. All of them are masked up, even outside the airport. "Better safe than sorry ... especially since I have a family where I have some younger kids who aren’t able to get the vaccine and then I also have some older family members that I see," he said.

"We understand that it’s a really confusing time for travel," said San Diego International Airport spokesperson Sabrina LoPiccolo. She said while the airport does not require masks for travelers or employees, it’s important to call your airline and the place you’re visiting before your trip. "Whether you’re traveling domestically or internationally there’s going to be different rules … just do your due diligence and do some research before you arrive at the airport."

Passengers on an United Airlines flight from Houston to New York, for instance, could ditch their masks at their departing airport and on the plane, but have to put them back on once they land at Kennedy Airport or take a subway.

A video showed some passengers on a Delta Air Lines flight cheering and applauding as they took off their masks upon hearing an announcement that they were now optional. One man could be seen happily twirling his mask on his finger.

In a 59-page lawsuit ruling, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overstepped its authority in issuing the original health order on which the TSA directive was based. She also said the order was fatally flawed because the CDC didn't follow proper rulemaking procedures.

Mizelle, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, said the only remedy was to throw out the mandate for the entire country because it would be impossible to end it only for the people who objected in the lawsuit.

The White House said the mask order “is not in effect at this time” and called the court decision disappointing.

The Justice Department declined to comment on whether it would seek an emergency stay to block the judge’s order. The CDC also declined to comment.

United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines all quickly announced they were yanking the mask requirement for domestic and some international flights. So did American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways.

Sleepy passengers on a Delta flight between Atlanta and Barcelona, Spain, cheered, whistled and applauded when a flight attendant announced the news mid-flight over the ocean.

“No one’s any happier than we are,” the attendant says in a video posted by Dillon Thomas, a CBS Denver reporter, who was on the flight. She added that people who wanted to keep on their masks were encouraged to do so.

“But we’re ready to give ém up,” she added. “So thank you and happy unmasking day!”

Major airports dropped their requirements but sided with the CDC in recommending that people be voluntarily masked. They included Los Angeles International Airport, the world’s fifth-busiest by passenger volume, and Salt Lake City International Airport, which announced it would hand out masks to anyone requesting them.

New York City’s public transit system planned to keep its mask requirement in place. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority said it would make masks optional for riders on its buses and trains.

As of Monday evening, the website of ride sharing company Lyft still said masks were required. In an email to customers Tuesday morning, Uber said masks were recommended but no longer required.

The CDC had recently extended the mask mandate, which was set to expire Monday, until May 3 to allow more time to study the BA.2 omicron subvariant of the coronavirus now responsible for the vast majority of cases in the U.S. But the court ruling puts that decision on hold.

Since the pandemic began two years ago, many state or local governments had issued various orders requiring masks to be worn inside schools, restaurants, stores or elsewhere. The rules were largely rolled back as the deadliest, most infectious months of the pandemic eased.

But the national rule for travelers remained and was arguably the most widespread, visible and irksome measure of its kind.

The wearing of masks aboard airplanes sparked online flame throwing between those who felt they were crucial to protecting people and those who saw it as an unnecessary inconvenience or even government overkill.

Some flight attendants found themselves cursed and even attacked by passengers who refused to comply.

The lawsuit was filed in July 2021 by two plaintiffs and the Health Freedom Defense Fund, described in the judge’s order as a nonprofit group that “opposes laws and regulations that force individuals to submit to the administration of medical products, procedures and devices against their will.”

Republicans in Congress waged a running battle to kill the mandate.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was not directly involved in the case but has battled against many government coronavirus requirements, praised the ruling.

“Both airline employees and passengers deserve to have this misery end,” DeSantis tweeted.