Justice Dept. to appeal decision lifting mask mandate on planes, trains if CDC deems rule necessary

The Justice Department is not asking for a stay of the lower court decision, meaning passengers will continue to be able to fly without face coverings.

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WASHINGTON — The Justice Department announced Tuesday that it will appeal the ruling that lifted the federal mask mandate on planes, trains and transit systems, pending a decision by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the order is still required for public health.

The Justice Department will not, however, ask the court to stay the decision, meaning passengers will be able to continue traveling maskless while the decision is litigated.

In the day since a federal judge in Florida struck down the CDC’s requirement, numerous airlines and public transit systems have announced that masks were optional.

"The Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) disagree with the district court’s decision and will appeal, subject to CDC’s conclusion that the order remains necessary for public health," the Justice Department said in a statement.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle ruled that the travel mask mandate was unlawful. The White House said the Transportation Security Administration will not enforce the rule on public transport and transportation hubs while the ruling is reviewed.

The decision to appeal could be driven less by current conditions and more by a need to preserve the ability of the CDC to issue future mandates. Monday’s decision was broad, challenging the government’s right to issue a national mandate.

"The Department continues to believe that the order requiring masking in the transportation corridor is a valid exercise of the authority Congress has given CDC to protect the public health," the Justice Department said in a statement. "That is an important authority the Department will continue to work to preserve."

Appealing also comes with risks. While Mizelle's decision brought national enforcement of the mandate to a halt, it carries little national precedent. But if her ruling were allowed to remain by a circuit court, it could further hamper the federal government's authority to issue a mandate in the future.

The CDC’s mask mandate, which was enacted in February 2021 to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, was most recently extended through May 3.

Ahead of the most recent extension last week, the country's largest airlines lobbied the federal government to let the mandate expire. They argued that enforcement has become difficult and that mandates in cities and states across the country were being lifted.