Airline passengers without face masks prepare to enter a security checkpoint at San Francisco International Airport on April 19. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
3 min

In practical terms, a federal judge’s ruling against President Biden’s mask mandate for public transportation, and the decision of airlines and others to drop it immediately, is not huge — the mandate was scheduled to end next month anyway. After more than two years of stress over the pandemic, with virus levels relatively low but rising in some places, it is important for public health measures to match the circumstances. This is true for wearing face masks. They work to protect against infection and are worth wearing in crowded indoor spaces, regardless of the legal ruling. Common sense still makes good sense.

U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle struck down the mandate on a very narrow legal basis. The Public Health Service Act of 1944 and subsequent laws and regulations give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the power to fight communicable diseases by, among other things, “sanitation” or related measures. The judge found a mask does not fall within the bounds of “sanitation.” That means, she wrote, “measures that clean something, not ones that keep something clean. Wearing a mask cleans nothing.”

This article was featured in the Opinions A.M. newsletter. Sign up here for a digest of opinions in your inbox six days a week.

This is hairsplitting, not wise public health. For the nation’s largest airlines, now on the cusp of a booming travel season, the mask mandate has been a burden and a professional challenge for flight attendants in particular. Once the ruling was issued, the legal requirement was no longer enforceable, and the administration is considering whether to appeal. But the airlines — American, United, Delta, Southwest, Alaska, Spirit, Frontier, JetBlue — whipped off the masks with unseemly haste. It would have been more encouraging to see messages asking passengers to keep them on voluntarily to prevent infection and sickness. The cabin air on planes is exchanged and filtered at a rate much greater than in most public buildings, but the risk for contagion remains in crowded terminals and stations.

The pandemic was roiled by debates from the very early days about government powers to issue directives to protect the public health, from lockdowns to vaccines and masks. We have argued that liberty does not confer the right to endanger others, and that the government has a responsibility and the authority to impose restrictions that are in the interests of the public as a whole. The policy and legal battles over the past two years have been inconclusive. Congress should act to give the CDC clear authority; the administration should file an appeal to the ruling. But the reality is that public health measures are effective only if people go along with them. Pandemic fatigue is now widespread; understandably, everyone wants to move on and leave choices up to each individual person. The uptick in infections caused by the spreading BA.2 subvariant is worrying but not a five-alarm emergency, at least not yet.

Masks trap some of the virus particles in air exhaled by others. They aren’t perfect but help build safety, along with vaccination. The judge’s ruling has not changed the biology of the virus, nor the effectiveness of measures to fight it. Wearing masks voluntarily protects you and those around you. That is still the best course of action.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; Mili Mitra (public policy solutions and audience development); Keith B. Richburg (foreign affairs); and Molly Roberts (technology and society).