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Florida sues feds over masks on planes and buses

Travelers wearing protective masks walk through Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va., in May.
Travelers wearing protective masks walk through Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va., in May.

In Florida’s latest salvo against the Biden administration over COVID-19 restrictions, Attorney General Ashley Moody on Tuesday filed a lawsuit challenging requirements that people wear masks in airports and on planes, trains and buses.

Moody, joined by attorneys general from 20 other states, filed the lawsuit in federal court in Tampa. In part, it contends that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has overstepped its legal authority in requiring masks for travelers.

“Faced with a government that displays outright disdain for the limits on its power — especially when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic — plaintiffs seek vacatur of that mask mandate and a permanent injunction against its enforcement,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit was the latest move by Moody and Gov. Ron DeSantis — and Republican leaders in other states — to fight Biden administration regulations related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, Tampa-based U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday last year sided with Florida in a challenge to federal restrictions that idled cruise ships after high-profile onboard outbreaks of COVID-19 early in the pandemic. Florida also has filed or taken part in lawsuits over issues such as vaccination requirements for employees of large businesses, health care workers and federal contractors.

Moody and DeSantis, widely considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate, announced the lawsuit during a news conference at the state Capitol. Both pointed to confrontations that have occurred on planes as passengers have resisted wearing masks.

“It has caused so much confusion, so much chaos, and so much pressure on the employees,” Moody said. “As you know, the airlines themselves have demanded that the administration take a look at that and consider what they are forcing them to do.”

But on its website, the CDC pointed to travelers being unable to distance themselves from other people to prevent spread of the virus.

“Traveling on public transportation increases a person’s risk of getting and spreading COVID-19 by bringing people in close contact with others, often for prolonged periods, and exposing them to frequently touched surfaces,” the website said. “Air travel often requires spending time in security lines and busy airport terminals.”

The federal Transportation Security Administration announced March 10 that, at the CDC’s recommendation, it was extending a mask directive until April 18. The Transportation Security Administration is among a series of defendants in the lawsuit because it enforces the mask requirement.

“During that time, CDC will work with government agencies to help inform a revised policy framework for when, and under what circumstances, masks should be required in the public transportation corridor,” the March 10 announcement said. “This revised framework will be based on the COVID-19 community levels, risk of new variants, national data and the latest science. We will communicate any updates publicly if and/or when they change.”

But Moody said a CDC order underpins the Transportation Security Administration’s directive and that mask requirements could be extended past April 18.

“I don’t think anyone should assume that they are not going to extend it again in April, because that has been the history of this administration,” she said. “But, even if they didn’t, we would still have the underlying unlawful CDC order.”

The lawsuit alleges, in part, that the CDC violated a law known as the Administrative Procedure Act. That includes arguing that the agency overstepped its legal authority and took “arbitrary and capricious” actions. The lawsuit said, for example, that the agency did not consider “lesser alternatives.”

Also, the lawsuit said the mask requirement violates states’ “quasi-sovereign interests in the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens. Forced masking — especially for toddlers — causes a variety of negative health consequences, including psychological harms, reduced oxygenation, reduced sanitation and delayed speech development.”

Other states joining in the lawsuit are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia.

Copyright 2022 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Jim Saunders - News Service of Florida
Tom Urban - News Service of Florida