It’s been quite a week for traveler’s whiplash. Today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asked the Department of Justice to appeal a federal judge’s decision to strike down the federal mask mandate. Since the ruling in Florida two days ago, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and airlines have made masks optional for both passengers and their own employees. The DOJ’s public affairs chief confirmed the CDC’s request via tweet.
“CDC believes this is a lawful order, well within CDC’s legal authority to protect public health,” the agency said in a statement, adding that its assessment remains that “at this time an order requiring masking in the indoor transportation corridor remains necessary for the public health.”
The announcement comes just a day after the Biden administration said it would only appeal the judge’s ruling if the CDC determined that the mask mandate was still necessary.
“CDC continues to recommend that people wear masks in all indoor public transportation settings,” continues the CDC’s statement. “CDC’s number one priority is protecting the public health of our nation. As we have said before, wearing masks is most beneficial in crowded or poorly ventilated locations, such as the transportation corridor.”
For travelers, today’s announcements will likely cause more confusion. In the immediate future, nothing changes; the mask mandate is no longer being enforced by the TSA. The TSA cannot reverse course unless the government wins the appeal or issues a stay of the lower court order. Both options would take time, and if the government were to lose, it could impair the CDC’s authority in a future health crisis.
It is up to travelers to decide for themselves whether to wear a mask in the airport or on the plane or both. Last week, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), suggested on a morning news show that the CDC might ultimately decide on a watered-down version of the mandate and only require passengers to “wear masks when they come on to planes and when they come off the planes.”
“Those are the highest risk points in time — when you’re boarding or when you’re coming off — because you’re congregating without the good air filtration,” said Gottlieb, adding that the air filtration “is only good once the engines start and the air is actually moving. The two most dangerous points in time are when you get on and off the plane when the air filtration isn’t on.”
Also today, the TSA stopped reporting how many employees are actively infected with Covid. “TSA was among the only agencies to report its infection information so transparently,” said a TSA spokesperson via email.
This morning the agency’s Covid-19 page reported that 388 employees currently have active infections. That is a 44% jump from the 270 infected employees reported nine days ago on April 11.