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Justice Department asks U.S. appeals court to allow transit mask mandate

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Washington — The Justice Department on Tuesday called on a federal appeals court to reinstate the national mask mandate for public transit and airplanes after a U.S. district judge found the requirements to be unlawful in April.

In a brief filed with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Biden administration argued the January 2021 order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requiring travelers to wear masks on public transportation and in transit hubs to prevent the spread of COVID-19 "falls easily" within the agency's statutory authority.

"Taking preventative measures is part of the CDC's core mission. It is embodied in the name of the agency — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," Justice Department lawyers told the 11th Circuit in their filing. "It makes no sense to suggest that the agency would not incorporate preventative measures in the actions it undertakes."

The findings in the CDC's mask mandate, they argued, "provide ample support for the agency's determination that there was good cause to make the order effective without delay."

The Biden administration officially appealed the decision from U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in April after the CDC said the transit mask requirement "remains necessary for public health."

Mizelle, who sits on the federal district court in Tampa, had ruled the CDC's order exceeded its statutory authority and violated the procedures required for agency rulemaking under federal law, and invalidated the mask mandate. The decision came just days after the CDC announced it would be extending the masking requirement until May 3 to allow it more time to assess the impact of the BA.2 omicron subvariant of the coronavirus that is driving new infections in the U.S.

In the wake of Mizelle's ruling, the Transportation Security Administration said it would not enforce the mask mandate on planes and public transit, and major U.S. airlines made mask-wearing optional for passengers and employees. Ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft also made masks voluntary, as did Amtrak.

The Justice Department, though, criticized Mizelle's decision and accused the district court judge of adopting a "cramped reading of a statute aimed at preventing the spread of communicable disease." The Biden administration also argued she erred in voiding the mask mandate nationwide and instead should have granted relief only to the five individuals who challenged the requirement.

"Article III and traditional principles of equity dictate that any remedy must be limited to redressing plaintiffs' particular injuries," the Justice Department argued. "Principles of comity and judicial restraint confirm that the district court should not have preempted the recent ruling by another judge upholding the CDC's transportation mask order or the similar cases pending within other circuits."

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