By David Shepardson, Rajesh Kumar Singh and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) -The Biden administration will no longer enforce a U.S. mask mandate on public transportation, after a federal judge in Florida on Monday ruled that the 14-month-old directive was unlawful, overturning a key White House effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Soon after the announcement, all major carriers including American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, as well as national train line Amtrak relaxed the restrictions effective immediately.
Last week, U.S. health officials had extended the mandate to May 3 requiring travelers to wear masks on airplanes, trains, and in taxis, ride-share vehicles or transit hubs, saying they needed time to assess the impact of a recent rise in COVID-19 cases caused by the airborne coronavirus.
Industry groups and Republican lawmakers balked and wanted the administration to end the 14-month-old mask mandate permanently.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, an appointee of President Donald Trump, came in a lawsuit filed last year in Tampa, Florida, by a group called the Health Freedom Defense Fund. It follows a string of rulings against Biden administration directives to fight the infectious disease that has killed nearly one million Americans, including vaccine or test mandates for employers.
Judge Mizelle said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had exceeded its authority with the mandate, had not sought public comment and did not adequately explain its decisions.
A U.S. administration official said while the agencies were assessing potential next steps, the court's decision meant CDC's public transportation masking order was no longer in effect. The administration could still opt to appeal the order or seek an emergency delay in the order's enforcement.
"Therefore, TSA will not enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs at this time," the official said in a statement.
"CDC recommends that people continue to wear masks in indoor public transportation settings."
The Transportation Security Administration said it will rescind the new Security Directives that were scheduled to take effect on Tuesday.
The ruling comes as COVID-19 infections rise again in the United States, with 36,251 new infections reported on average each day, and 460 daily deaths, based on a seven-day average - the highest number of reported total COVID-19 deaths in the world.
The White House called the ruling "disappointing."
The CDC first issued a public health order requiring masks in interstate transportation in February 2021. The TSA issued a security directive to enforce the CDC order.
The CDC and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) declined to comment.
United Airlines, American, Delta, Southwest Airlines, JetBlue and Alaska Airlines said masks are now optional on their planes.
"We are relieved to see the U.S. mask mandate lift to facilitate global travel as COVID-19 has transitioned to an ordinary seasonal virus," Delta said. The World Health Organization warned against comparing the virus to an endemic illness like the flu earlier this year, noting it is evolving too quickly.
The move could impact travel demand, which has roared back after a blip caused by the Omicron coronavirus variant. U.S. passenger traffic has been averaging about 89% of the pre-pandemic levels since mid-February, according to TSA data.
With the COVID-19 case count rising again, lifting the mandate could make some passengers wary, while prompting others to fly again.
Only 36% of Americans think it's time for people to stop using masks and quarantines so that life can get back to normal after COVID-19, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted between Jan. 31 and Feb. 7. However, while a mere 16% of Democrats hold this view, a whopping 60% of Republicans do, according to the poll.
Delta Chief Executive Officer Ed Bastian last week acknowledged the risk, but said the airline still expected its flights to be full.
"It's a question of individual accountability, personal accountability, making your own decisions rather than the government making decisions for people as to how to stay well," Bastian told Reuters in an interview.
On Monday, Delta asked its employees to show "understanding and patience" as the unexpected nature of the announcement could result in "inconsistent" enforcement.
Since January 2021, there have been a record 7,060 unruly passenger incidents reported, 70% involving masking rules, according to the FAA. Thousands of passengers have been put on "no-fly" lists for refusing to comply with masking requirements.
Alaska said some passengers will remain banned, even after the mask policy is rescinded.
(Reporting by David Shepardson, Mike Stone, Jeff Mason and Jason Lange in Washington and Rajesh Kumar Singh in Chicago; Writing by Chris Sanders and Rajesh Kumar Singh; Editing by Nick Macfie, Heather Timmons, Bill Berkrot and Bernard Orr)