by Richard Velotta, Las Vegas Review Journal, April 18, 2022
Harry Reid International Airport lifted its mask mandate for travelers Monday night after the Transportation Security Administration said that it would no longer enforce the mask requirement, a move that local tourism experts expect will result in more Las Vegas visitors.
The decision came hours after a federal judge in Florida voided the mask mandate on airlines and public transportation.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention improperly failed to justify the mandate and did not follow proper rulemaking.
After the ruling was made public, airlines and airports swiftly began repealing their requirements that passengers wear face coverings to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
In her 59-page ruling, Mizelle said the only remedy was to vacate the rule entirely because it would be impossible to end it for the limited group of people who objected to it in the lawsuit.
“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,” she wrote.
Amanda Belarmino, an assistant professor at UNLV’s William F. Harrah College of Hospitality, said Las Vegas could benefit from the ruling.
“As we have seen most of American life return to almost pre-pandemic levels with mask mandates largely only in place for doctors’ visits, I think that the end of mask mandates on transportation would signal a further return to normalcy,” Belarmino said. “Since people are traveling to and from destinations without masks, being able to fly without a mask would make things much simpler. I think it may also increase the desire for people to travel by air, which is one section of the economy that has not fully recovered.”
Transit systems follow suit
Mizelle’s decision freed airlines, airports and mass transit systems to make their own decisions about mask requirements, resulting in a mix of responses.
The major airlines switched to a mask optional policy, with some eliciting cheers from passengers when the changes were announced over loudspeakers.
Airports in Houston and Dallas almost immediately did away with their mandates after the TSA announcement.
Los Angeles International Airport, the world’s fifth-largest by passenger volume, also dropped its mandate but the Centers for Disease Control continued to recommend masking on transportation “and I think that’s good advice,” LAX spokesman Heath Montgomery said.
Sleepy passengers on a Delta Airlines flight between Atlanta and Barcelona, Spain, cheered and applauded when a flight attendant announced the news mid-flight over the ocean.
“No one’s any happier than we are,” the attendant says in a video posted by Dillon Thomas, a CBS Denver reporter, who was on the flight. She added that people who wanted to keep on their masks were encouraged to do so.
“But we’re ready to give ém up,” she added. “So thank you and happy unmasking day!”
New York City’s public transit system planned to keep its mask requirement in place. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority said it would make masks optional for riders on its buses and trains.
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. On Monday, the union’s president appealed for calm on planes and in airports.
“The last thing we need for workers on the frontlines or passengers traveling today is confusion and chaos,” union leader Sara Nelson said.
Nelson said it takes airlines 24 to 48 hours to put new procedures in place and tell employees about them.
She said passengers should check with airlines for updates about travel requirements.
A moot point
Industry analyst Brendan Bussmann, founder of Las Vegas-based B Global, said Monday’s ruling should have been a moot point because the mask mandate was due to expire anyway, had it not been extended last week.
“The sooner that we are able to return to normal, the sooner our long-term recovery can occur. While we still face economic and geopolitical challenges to the recovery, (Monday’s) ruling may help allow some of these other measures that have been in place for two years to subside and become voluntary,” Bussmann said.
(“Monday’s) ruling is not surprising considering previous court rulings on the mask mandate,” he said. “At this point, I’m not sure how much it impacts immediate visitation to the destination, although there has been a percentage of people waiting until the mask mandate was removed before they got back on a plane.”
Bussmann said a challenge remains for international travel but noted that “current testing protocols that will help raise this segment of visitors back to Las Vegas.”
Representatives of the Nevada Resort Association declined to comment on the ruling. Officials with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority did not respond to a request for comment.
The CDC 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 of the coronavirus that is now responsible for the vast majority of cases in the U.S.
The mask requirement for travelers was the target of months of lobbying from the airlines, which sought to kill it. The carriers argued that effective air filters on modern planes make transmission of the virus during a flight highly unlikely. Republicans in Congress also fought to kill the mandate.
Critics have seized on the fact that states have rolled back rules requiring masks in restaurants, stores and other indoor settings, and yet COVID-19 cases have fallen sharply since the omicron variant peaked in mid-January.
Psaki: Masks still recommended
The mask requirement covered airlines, airports, mass transit and taxis, and was the biggest vestige of pandemic restrictions that were once the norm across the country.
The Justice Department declined to comment when asked if it would seek an emergency stay to block the judge’s order. The CDC also declined to comment.
The White House said the court ruling means that for now the mask order “is not in effect at this time.”
“This is obviously a disappointing decision,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “The CDC is recommending wearing a mask on public transit.”
In New York, Metropolitan Transportation Authority communications director Tim Minton said the system was “continuing to follow CDC guidelines and will review the Florida court order.”
The MTA operates New York City buses and subway trains as well as two commuter rail lines. Face coverings have been mandatory on all trains and buses since early in the pandemic.
United Airlines said in a statement that, effective immediately, masks would no longer be required on domestic flights or certain international flights.
Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines also made similar announcements.
Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was not directly involved in the case, praised the ruling in a statement on Twitter.
“Great to see a federal judge in Florida follow the law and reject the Biden transportation mask mandate. Both airline employees and passengers deserve to have this misery end,” DeSantis tweeted.