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US judge overturns travel mask mandate

A federal judge in Florida says a US mask mandate on public transportation is unlawful, overturning a Biden administration effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Last week, US health officials extended by 15 days the mandate requiring travelers to wear masks on aeroplanes, 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.

The ruling by US 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.

Judge Mizelle said the CDC had exceeded its authority with the mandate, had not sought public comment and did not adequately explain its decisions.

The Transportation Security Administration and Federal Aviation Administration declined to comment.

The White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not immediately comment.

The CDC first issued a public health order requiring masks in interstate transportation in February 2021. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) issued a security directive to enforce the CDC order.

The judge sent the issue back to the CDC. It was not clear whether the judge’s order would take immediate effect.

Industry groups and Republicans had wanted the administration to immediately end the 14-month-old mask mandate last week.

The ruling could create confusion on aeroplanes where the mask mandate has caused a surge in incidents and altercations between airline officials enforcing the mandate and passengers rejecting the demand they cover their faces.

The Federal Aviation Administration said that since January 2021, there have been a record 7060 unruly passenger incidents reported – and 70 per cent involved masking rules.

Airlines for America, for example, had urged the Biden administration “to lean into science and research, which clearly support lifting the mask mandate. It makes no sense to require masks on a plane when masks are not recommended in places like restaurants, bars or crowded sports facilities.”

The group, which represents major US passenger airlines, did not have an immediate comment on Monday’s ruling.

The US Senate voted 57-40 last month to overturn the public health order requiring masks on aeroplanes and other forms of public transportation, drawing a veto threat from Biden.

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