No masks on planes, transit? Not so fast, Biden administration says as it files to keep mandate

  • Metra riders, masked or not, board an outbound train Tuesday in Naperville.

      Metra riders, masked or not, board an outbound train Tuesday in Naperville. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Updated 4/21/2022 7:03 AM

The quandary of masks on transit and planes is back in play after the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday appealed a federal judge's ruling tossing out the COVID-19 mandate.

The Justice Department's actions followed a request from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.


"It is CDC's continuing assessment that at this time an order requiring masking in the indoor transportation corridor remains necessary for the public health," CDC officials said in a statement.

Riders on Metra, the CTA and Pace and travelers at O'Hare International Airport started Monday with masks, but a federal judge reversed the CDC's policy that morning. That led airlines to quickly drop the mask rule, and local transit agencies followed suit Tuesday afternoon after Gov. J.B. Pritzker rescinded an emergency rule requiring face coverings.

Department of Justice officials said Tuesday they were ready to appeal Florida federal Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle's decision but wanted the CDC to make the call.

Both entities "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. It said nothing further on Wednesday.

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CDC officials said the agency's No. 1 "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."

On Monday, Mizelle, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, said the mask mandate exceeded the CDC's authority and the agency improperly failed to justify its decision and did not follow proper rule-making.

"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," Mizelle wrote.

It's a legal fight that could go all the way to the Supreme Court.

"CDC will continue to monitor public health conditions to determine whether such an order remains necessary," the agency stated. "CDC believes this is a lawful order, well within CDC's legal authority to protect public health."


Suffering from whiplash are transit agencies, airlines and airports. Just hours before the CDC acted, Metra Executive Director Jim Derwinski had updated board directors that workers would be installing new signage with the agency's optional-masking policy after two days of surprises.

"It was very dynamic situation," Derwinski said, unaware of the twist to come.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration and CDC had originally set Monday as the day for masking on transportation systems to end. But that was extended until May 3 so the CDC could assess the risks of the superinfectious COVID-19 variant, BA. 2, which is causing infections to spike in the U.S.

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