Less than 48 hours after many Americans got the go-ahead to ditch masks on planes and in airports, President Joe Biden's administration moved on Wednesday evening to appeal the court ruling that struck down the federal mask mandate. But that legal maneuver won't force travelers to wear masks for air travel again – at least not for now.
A U.S. District Court Judge in Florida nixed the federal mask requirement for public transportation on Monday, ruling the CDC exceeded its rulemaking authority with that requirement. Within hours, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), major airlines, and even airports announced they would stop enforcing mask requirements. And by Wednesday morning, many travelers across the country were flying maskless for the first time in two years.
But the CDC said Wednesday it would instruct the Justice Department to appeal the decision, arguing that masking on planes and other forms of public transportation “remains necessary for the public health” at a time when COVID-19 cases are on the rise again. The Department of Justice confirmed it had begun the appeal process.
“To protect CDC’s public health authority beyond the ongoing assessment announced last week, CDC has asked DOJ to proceed with an appeal,” the public health agency said in a statement. “It is CDC’s continuing assessment that at this time an order requiring masking in the indoor transportation corridor remains necessary for the public health. CDC will continue to monitor public health conditions to determine whether such an order remains necessary.”
The appeal won't immediately make masks mandatory again. The Justice Department's appeal did not seek an emergency stay of Monday's ruling, according to USA Today, and the Biden administration has stopped enforcing the rule on the books.
Check out our firsthand account of how travelers have reacted to the news this week
But could mask requirements come back eventually?
On one hand, the CDC explicitly said it believes masking is still required and said it will “determine whether such an order remains necessary,” which doesn't shut the door. On the other hand, the agency specifically opened its statement stressing the need to “protect the CDC's public health authority.”
So is the public health agency simply trying to preserve its authority and avert a legal precedent that could hamstring any future health measures? Or is it trying to open an avenue to reimpose the mask mandate – especially if COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations tick up with the continued spread of more fast-spreading variants?
No matter the approach, the news of an appeal just two days after the mandate was struck down could leave travelers' heads spinning to keep track of the current rules.
After a recent two-week extension, the federal mask mandate had been set to lapse as of May 4. That latest extension was the shortest such push yet, a clear signal that the days of federally mandated mask requirements were numbered.
Biden administration officials had hinted earlier Wednesday an appeal could be in the works if the CDC deemed it necessary. But on Tuesday, Biden himself had said, “It's up to them” when asked about whether Americans should still be required to wear a face covering on planes and other forms of public transportation.
This is a breaking news story, check back for more updates.