A judge struck down the travel mask mandate. Here’s what that means for you

A federal judge in Florida on Monday struck down a COVID mask mandate for planes, buses and trains, and imposed a nationwide injunction. The judge ruled that the mandate exceeds the authority of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. William Brangham talks to Lawrence Gostin of Georgetown University about what this means for passengers, public health and the CDC’s ability to act.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported, the question of masking on public transportation hit a new snag today.

    William Brangham has more on a federal judge's ruling to overturn the CDC's national mask mandate.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    For a closer look at what this ruling means for travelers and for the CDC's authority, we turn to Lawrence Gostin. He's a professor of global health law at Georgetown University and has written several books on the topic.

    Larry Gostin, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    The judge in her ruling in this case noted that masks can stop the spread of viruses, but she said that the CDC's authority in this matter — that it overstepped its authority. What do you make of her argument?

  • Larry Gostin, Georgetown University:

    Well, thanks for having the William.

    The — her argument makes very little sense to me. I mean, there are certainly areas where CDC's powers are questionable, like the housing eviction moratorium that the Supreme Court struck down.

    But it's hard for me to think of a more classic case, where the CDC is well within its legal and constitutional powers than at airports, preventing the interstate or the international transmission of a dangerous infectious disease.

    I would say CDC is actually at the very height of its legal powers. And if it can't do this, I'm not sure what it could do to protect the public's health.

  • William Brangham:

    As we reported, the CDC said now, given this ruling, that the TSA and other agencies are not going to enforce this ruling anymore. Of course, people who want to wear masks can still wear masks. That's not an issue.

    But on a public health level, the CDC had been debating whether or not to drop this requirement anyway before this ruling. We know that cases are ticking back up somewhat. What is your sense as to how much this really will matter as far as keeping people safe?

  • Larry Gostin:

    Well, let's first talk about the current situation we're in.

    We have got over the next couple of days tens of thousands of passengers going to airports. And there's chaos and there's confusion. The airlines don't know what to do. The airline staff don't know what to do. There's likely to be even more verbal and even physical — verbal abuse and physical violence.

    That's really concerning. And I think there's a legitimate conversation about whether or not we should have masks on planes. But the CDC has said that it was — it needed another 15 days — it's not a lot — to evaluate whether the current spike in cases was going to lead to a spike in hospitalizations and deaths, as occurred in the U.K.

    That's a very reasonable and prudent decision to take. And I can't imagine why a federal judge would strike it down until the CDC had all the facts and could make its decision on a basis of science.

  • William Brangham:

    When we were talking earlier, you mentioned that you were concerned about the longer-term impact that this might have on the CDC's the ability to protect the public.

    Can you explain what troubles you here?

  • Larry Gostin:

    You know, it does.

    Throughout this pandemic, virtually every federal order to curb COVID-19 has been at one time or another blocked or struck down by the federal courts. We have become really partisan, and the courts have kind of participated in this COVID culture war, where we're just sniping at one another, rather than letting public health agencies do their work.

    Now, I know a lot of people think that the pandemic is coming to a close. I don't think it is. But we're certainly coming into a different phase. But I really worry about the future. Do we really want to handcuff the CDC and other public health agencies for protecting the public when the next health emergency hits?

    And almost certainly will hit. And it may hit soon. So we need vibrant, strong public health action.

  • William Brangham:

    So, if people are watching this news and thinking, OK, mask, don't mask, school say yes, some schools say no, for a concerned citizen out there, what guidance would you give them?

  • Larry Gostin:

    You know, the guidance I would give them — and it's not — and it's something that actually saddens me from a public health perspective, because I have always seen public health as a population-based decision by public health scientists.

    But now we're kind of in the situation where individuals are going to have to protect themselves, particularly if they're vulnerable, if they're elderly, if they're immune-compromised, if you're child and you're unable to be vaccinated. You may need to wear a high-quality N95 or KN95 mask to protect yourself, because it's very clear that a large swathe of American public policy has moved on.

    We — COVID is still here. And it's going to be here for a long time. So I hope we're going to come together as a nation, listen to science, trust our public health agencies, and let them guide us.

  • William Brangham:

    Larry Gostin of Georgetown University, always good to see you. Thank you.

  • Larry Gostin:

    Thanks, William.

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