Just days after it was extended by another month, the U.S. Senate voted Tuesday to lift the federal mask mandate on planes and in airports. But with Democrats firmly in control of the U.S. House and President Joe Biden's administration promising a veto, the mask mandate is unlikely to disappear soon.
The Senate approved a resolution that, if signed into law, would repeal federal masking requirements on planes, in airports, and on other forms of public transportation. Several Democrats joined nearly all Republicans in the narrowly Democratic-held Senate in approving the measure on a 57-40 vote.
But it's not over yet, as the measure faces an uncertain path in the Democratic-controlled House. And even if it passes there, the White House has promised a veto is coming.
“Public transportation and transportation hubs are places where people across communities congregate, often for extended periods and in close quarters. The determination of the timeline and circumstances under which masks should be required in these settings should be guided by science, not politics,” Biden's office said in an official Statement of Administration Policy, David Shepardson of Reuters reported. “If Congress were to pass this resolution, the President would veto it.”
No matter its fate, Tuesday's vote signals the increasing pressure on the Biden administration to ease COVID-19 restrictions on travel and other daily activities as the nation emerges from a wave of COVID-19 cases and enters a new phase of the pandemic.
Before an eleventh-hour extension late last week, the mask mandate had been set to lapse on March 18. But the Biden administration's latest move pushed that out to at least April 18 with another monthlong extension. But with just another 30 days on the clock, it's the shortest extension yet
Republicans forced a Senate vote on the resolution Tuesday, arguing that lifting such mandates was long overdue – and that keeping them in place was politically motivated.
“As the entire world is learning to live with COVID, the federal government still uses fear mongering to stubbornly perpetuate its mandates, rather than giving clear-eyed, rational advice on how to best protect yourself from illness,” Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican and former presidential candidate who spearheaded Tuesday's vote, said in a statement. “That is why I am forcing a vote to repeal travel mask mandates on public transportation and put a stop to this anti-science, nanny state requirement.”
The U.S. mask mandate is increasingly looking like an outlier as other requirements near and far fade away. Hawaii will become the final state to ditch a statewide mask mandate when it's allowed to lapse later this month. Across the pond, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic announced they'll drop their own inflight mask mandates this week in line with United Kingdom government regulations – though they'll still be required to enforce the U.S. rules when flying to or from the states.
Democrats warned that Republicans' resolution would hamstring Biden or future presidents from restoring mask requirements and other public health measures if another COVID-19 variant emerges. Resolutions under the Congressional Review Act like the one passed Tuesday can undo federal rulemaking like the mask mandate, but those resolutions also bar agencies from instating similar regulations in the future.
This is a breaking news story, check back for more updates.