The decision has left legal and medical experts asking who’s in charge and who will get the final say in future public health emergencies.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had exceeded its authority with the mandate.
In her ruling, Mizelle said the CDC went too far and that its mask mandate “violates the procedures required for agency rulemaking.”
Federal law says the CDC has the power to issue rules and regulations aimed at preventing the interstate spread of communicable diseases.
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agencies were assessing potential next steps, the court’s decision meant CDC’s public transportation masking order was no longer in effect.
Right now, subways, buses and taxis in several states are still requiring masks.
But a host of other cities ditched their mandates, even though the CDC continued to recommend masking on transportation.
Major airlines and airports in places including Dallas, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City quickly switched to a mask-optional policy.
New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Connecticut continue to require them on mass transit.
A pilot declared over the loudspeaker on a cross-country Delta Air Lines flight that passengers were no longer required to wear masks, eliciting cheers from the cabin and prompting some on board to immediately toss their face coverings onto their seats.
The ruling was “basically, a get out of jail free card for people who want to get off the masks,” travel expert Peter Greenberg said.
Air travelers were quick to react to the change.
“We have seen many travelers already ditching the masks,” said one reporter in Albany, New York.
Some air travelers said they were still going to mask up.
“I wanna wear it because I want to protect my family,” said one traveler.
Dr. Dana Hawkinson, an infectious disease physician with the University of Kansas Health System, reacted, “Do you want to risk that you are going to be ill or sick for this trip that you are going on?”
The CDC updated its mask guidance to include a disclaimer, stating:
“As a result of a court order, effective immediately and as of April 18, 2022, CDC’s January 29, 2021 Order requiring masks on public transportation conveyances and at transportation hubs is no longer in effect.”
It also states that the “CDC continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings at this time.”
Adding to criticism of the ruling, the American Bar Association said Mizelle was “not qualified” for her position in 2020 when then-President Donald Trump nominated her.
In a letter, the ABA said the 35-year-old lacked experience when she was awarded the lifetime appointment.
At least for now, travelers are largely making their own call on masks.
As COVID-19 cases are now rising again in the U.S., the Biden administration could still appeal or seek an emergency delay in enforcement, but for the moment, the courts have spoken.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.