The U.S. Department of Justice says it will appeal a ruling that eliminated COVID-19 mask mandates for public transportation if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) deems it necessary.
"The Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) disagree with the district court’s decision and will appeal, subject to CDC’s conclusion that the order remains necessary for public health," the DOJ said in a statement. "The Department continues to believe that the order requiring masking in the transportation corridor is a valid exercise of the authority Congress has given CDC to protect the public health. That is an important authority the Department will continue to work to preserve."
In a statement released a day after a Florida judge ended the sweeping mandate, which required face coverings on planes and trains and in transit hubs, Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said officials believe that the federal mask order was "a valid exercise of the authority Congress has given CDC to protect the public health." He said it was "an important authority the Department will continue to work to preserve."
Coley said the CDC had said it would continue to assess public health conditions, and if the agency determined a mandate was necessary for public health, the Justice Department would file an appeal.
A federal judge's decision to throw out a mask requirement on public transportation did away with the last major vestige of federal pandemic rules and led to a mishmash of new locally created rules that reflected the nation's ongoing division over how to battle the virus.
In a 59-page lawsuit ruling, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overstepped its authority in issuing the original health order on which the TSA directive was based. She also said the order was fatally flawed because the CDC didn't follow proper rulemaking procedures.
The case was originally brought to Judge Mizelle by Health Freedom Defense Fund, Inc., Ana Daza, and Sarah Pope, who were against the administration's decision for an extension.
The CDC had recently extended the mask mandate, which was set to expire Monday, until May 3 to allow more time to study the BA.2 omicron subvariant now responsible for the vast majority of cases in the U.S. But the court ruling puts that decision on hold.
After the judge's decision, major airlines and airports in places like Dallas, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City dropped the mask requirement and made it optional. New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Connecticut continued to require them on mass transit.
The national mask rule for travelers was among the last pandemic restrictions still in place. It sparked online bickering between those who felt the policy was still needed and those who saw it as government overreach.
When President Biden was asked Tuesday if people should continue to wear masks on airplanes, he said: "That's up to them."
During her press briefing on Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called Judge Mizelle's decision, "disappointing."
After a winter surge fueled by the omicron variant that led to record hospitalizations, the U.S. has seen a significant drop in virus spread in recent months that led most states and cities to drop mask mandates.
Fox News' Aubrie Spady and The Associated Press contributed to this report.