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Local Law Experts Weigh In On What's Next In Masking Debate

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- The Justice Department says it will not appeal a federal judge's ruling that ended the nation's travel mask mandate unless the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes the requirement is necessary. There's no word just yet from the CDC.

As of now, masks are no longer required on airplanes and other public transportation, which includes SEPTA and Amtrak. Rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft have also ended their mask mandates. But face coverings are still required inside Philadelphia International Airport due to the city's mask mandate.

The ruling comes less than a week after the Biden administration extended the transportation mask mandate through May 3 as COVID-19 cases, fueled by the omicron BA.2 subvariant, are on the rise.

"I think that this is part of a continuing trend among conservatives to really dial back the power of the executive branch and in particular, agencies," said Stacy Hawkins, the vice dean and professor of law at Rutgers Law School.

Hawkins says she wasn't surprised when a federal judge in Florida, appointed by former President Donald Trump, said the CDC exceeded its authority when it imposed the travel mask mandate.

"One of the things that the court said in this instance was that the agency didn't justify its need to act in emergent circumstances," Hawkins said.

Late Tuesday, the Justice Department said it would not appeal unless the CDC believes the requirement is still necessary.

Villanova Director of Law Mike Moreland says that appeal would be important in the case of future surges or pandemics.

"I think the likeliest thing is that the administration might want to appeal just to preserve the substantive ability of CDC to impose these kinds of restrictions," Moreland said.

For now, Dr. Marci Drees worries about the timing of the news.

"I think it could have been done in a much more measured way and certainly not when we're seeing a new highly contagious variant," said Drees, the chief infection prevention officer at ChristianaCare and a hospital epidemiologist.

While she says wearing a mask still helps protect you, she does suggest those who are immunocompromised and rely on public transportation will be disproportionately affected.

Still, despite this abrupt change, one thing likely to endure is the debate over masking.

"This was just the CDC's guidance," Hawkins said. "We still have states and localities, school districts and others where this fight is going to continue to be waged."

The Association of Flight Attendants, the nation's largest union of cabin crews, has recently taken a neutral position on the mask rule because its members are divided about the issue.

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