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Biden says people must decide for themselves whether to wear masks on planes as administration plans to appeal court ruling


President Joe Biden said on Tuesday it was up to individual travelers whether or not to wear face masks on planes following a judge’s decision to overturn a federal warrant, which the Biden administration is considering appealing.

The evolving situation was on display Tuesday as passengers on Biden’s trip aboard Air Force One to New Hampshire were required to wear masks while, at the same time, passengers on commercial airlines across the United States were entering airplane cabins with the option of foregoing a mask. The president boarded the plane on Tuesday afternoon wearing a black mask.

But despite the rules on Air Force One, Biden told reporters upon arriving in New Hampshire that Americans have to make their own decisions about whether or not to wear masks on planes, saying, “It’s up to them. decide.”

The question now is whether the Biden administration will appeal the decision — and it was a question the president didn’t seem ready to answer on Tuesday afternoon.

Asked in New Hampshire if he wants the Justice Department to appeal the new mask ruling, Biden said, “I haven’t spoken to the CDC yet.”

And when later pressed during the trip whether there would be a call, Biden repeated, “I haven’t received any briefs from my CDC. I do not know. We follow the science.

While the Justice Department will ultimately be responsible for deciding whether to appeal the judge’s ruling, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra suggested on Tuesday that such a move was likely.

“We are currently in the process of making a decision and we will probably appeal this decision. Stay tuned,” Becerra said during a press conference with Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak.

It remains unclear whether the Justice Department will seek an order reversing the decision and file an appeal. White House Press Secretary Psaki said Tuesday that the administration was “reviewing next steps,” which could be decided in the coming days.

Administration officials were taken by surprise when the Florida judge struck down the requirement, which had been in place for 441 days. Suddenly, a decision administration officials had been considering for weeks — whether American travelers should wear masks — was made urgent and complicated by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, who was handpicked by Biden’s predecessor. , Donald Trump.

The order was analyzed by lawyers from the White House, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the agency responsible for enforcing the rules. As they digested the 59-page decision, it was unclear whether passengers seated in airports or on planes at 30,000 feet could remove their masks without breaking federal rules.

The airlines, which had been lobbying the administration for weeks to lift the mandates, sought government advice on what exactly they should tell crew and passengers, whose phones lit up with news of the decision. .

And in the hours following the judge’s decision, Psaki was unable to say whether a federal mask mandate for travelers remained in place.

“We continue to recommend people wear masks. I don’t have any updates,” Psaki said when asked if the mask mandate is still in place for travelers boarding their flights Monday night.

But after a few hours of deliberation, attorneys for the administration determined that the judge’s order meant the mask mandate was not in effect — meaning the government couldn’t enforce it. The CDC stressed that it was not implementing the decision in a subsequent statement to CNN on Tuesday.

Since the administration’s decision and subsequent guidance that the mandate could not be enforced, several US airlines, some transit authorities, Uber, Lyft and Amtrak have all announced that masks are no longer necessary for passengers.

On Tuesday, the White House also pushed back on one such company, Delta Air Lines, after the company referred to Covid-19 as an “ordinary seasonal virus” in its message announcing that masks are optional on its flights.

Delta’s original post read, “We are relieved to see the lifting of the US mask mandate to facilitate global travel and COVID-19 has transitioned to a regular seasonal virus.”

A White House spokesman for Covid-related issues, Kevin Munoz, responded, “COVID is not an ‘ordinary seasonal virus'” and linked to Biden’s 100-page Covid preparedness plan.

Delta later removed the reference to “ordinary seasonal virus” from its post.

While the White House was disappointed with the turn of events, scenes of airline passengers happily removing their masks in the open air illustrated the complex emotions surrounding the moment.

As recently as last week, federal officials extended the mask mandate for travel until at least May 3 – even as airline industry officials called for an end to the mask requirement. masking.

Mask mandates on planes have long proven to be among the most controversial rules of the pandemic era. Cabins have become fertile ground for conflict, often over the need to wear face coverings.

A March poll found that Americans are nearly evenly divided in their support for a continued mask mandate for travel.

In a March 15-22 poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, American adults were split on the federal mandate requiring people to wear masks on planes, trains and other public transportation. About half, 51%, said the government should let the mandate expire after April 18 (as originally planned), while a further 48% wanted to see the travel mask mandate extended.

The same March poll found broader support for voluntary mask-wearing in certain situations. A 59% majority of Americans said “people should continue to wear masks in certain public places to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and prevent a further increase in cases,” while 40% said “people people should stop wearing masks in most public places to get things back to normal.

About two-thirds of Americans are vaccinated with at least their initial series and less than a third have received their boosters. But many are signaling they are ready to move on and live with the virus – with just 1 in 10 calling the pandemic a crisis in a recent Axios-Ipsos poll.

Reported cases of coronavirus, meanwhile, are increasing in more than half of the 50 states, largely due to the BA.2 omicron subvariant. But Covid-19 hospitalizations are near their lowest level since the government started tracking this metric in July 2020. Omicron’s BA.2 subvariant and its offshoots are now causing virtually all cases of Covid-19 in the United States.

Asked if the White House is concerned about whether the administration is out of step with the American public’s perception of Covid-19, PSAki told reporters on Tuesday: “(We) are not taking these decisions based on politics or based on political whims in a plane or even in a poll.

She argued that “there are still a lot of people in this country who still want to have masks in place,” pointing the finger at immunocompromised people and parents with young children.

In some ways, lifting the mask requirement on planes, trains and buses was a natural step for a White House determined to get life back to normal.

Hours before Monday’s decision, Biden was hosting 30,000 guests on the South Lawn for a revived Easter Egg Roll in Washington, the biggest event he’s hosted at the executive mansion since taking office.

Even amid a spike in cases in his circle and among high-level officials in Washington over the past month, Biden hadn’t changed his routines. And even his top aides had begun to admit that in a different phase of the pandemic, it was entirely possible that he himself was infected.

Biden will headline two high-value fundraisers in the Pacific Northwest when he visits later this week, according to people familiar with the plans – his first time on the road raising funds. funds since taking office. He had avoided in-person fundraising events for much of his presidency and campaign amid the pandemic.

The fundraisers are the latest signal that the White House is moving to a post-pandemic normal. They will support the Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund, which is a joint account between the Democratic National Committee and state Democratic parties.

Biden is otherwise using his trip to promote his infrastructure law. It will only be his second time on the West Coast since taking office.

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