Metra, Pace, CTA not changing mask policy yet while some airlines do after judge's ruling

A federal judge's ruling throwing out the government's mask mandate on airplanes and public transit Monday has caused a bit of a free-for-all in the Chicago region and nationwide with diverging policies.

As the Biden administration assesses the decision, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration will no longer enforce “mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs,” the agency stated Monday evening.

Chicago's hometown carrier, United Airlines, announced that “effective immediately, masks are no longer required at United on domestic flights, select international flights or at U.S. airports.” Delta, Southwest and American soon followed suit.

But Metra is “not making any immediate changes to the mask requirement while we assess the situation,” spokesman Michael Gillis said.

And while it's masks-off on United and other planes, you still have to wear one if you're inside O'Hare and Midway international airports, the Chicago Department of Aviation said Monday afternoon. The CDA “will continue to follow, observe and enforce all current and future guidance by federal, state and local health and security authorities.”

Yet the situation is evolving rapidly as the transportation industry reacts to the ruling and the federal government's guidance.

The TSA and Centers for Disease Control had set May 3 as the deadline for the COVID-19 mitigation to expire on transportation systems. The CDC “continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings at this time,” officials said.

At Pace suburban bus, “we get our directives from the TSA, so we're waiting on word from them,” spokeswoman Maggie Daly Skogsbakken said.

A Chicago Transit Authority official also said “masks are still required on CTA trains and buses. If that requirement changes, we will notify customers.”

Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines updated their policies to be mask-optional Monday evening.

“Face masks will no longer be required for our customers and team members at U.S. airports and on domestic flights (though there may be some exceptions based on local or country requirements),” American tweeted.

The decision by Florida U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, said the mandate exceeded the CDC's authority and the agency improperly failed to justify its decision and did not follow proper rule making.

In her 59-page ruling, Mizelle said the only remedy was to vacate the rule entirely because it would be impossible to end it for the limited group of people who objected to it in the lawsuit.

“Because our system does not permit agencies to act unlawfully even in pursuit of desirable ends, the court declares unlawful and vacates the mask mandate,” she wrote.

White House Press Jen Psaki called the decision “disappointing,” at a briefing.

“Right now the Department of Homeland Security, that will be implementing, and the CDC are reviewing the decision and, of course, the Department of Justice would make any determinations about litigation,” she said.

The Justice Department declined to comment Monday.

The CDC extended the mask mandate last week although it was to have ended Monday because of concerns about the proliferation of the infectious COVID-19 variant, BA.2. The agency needed to “assess the potential impact the rise of cases has on severe disease.”

The mask requirement for travelers was the target of months of lobbying from the airlines, which sought to kill it. The carriers argued that effective air filters on modern planes make transmission of the virus during a flight highly unlikely.

Aviation industry stakeholders including pilots' unions have argued the mask rule now causes stress for the flying public and contributes to an increase in belligerent and violent behavior by passengers.

The lawsuit was filed in July 2021 by two plaintiffs and the Health Freedom Defense Fund, described in the judge's order as a nonprofit group that “opposes laws and regulations that force individuals to submit to the administration of medical products, procedures and devices against their will.”

• Daily Herald wire services contributed to this report.

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