TSA Stops Mask Enforcement After Federal Judge Voids Mandate

Biden Doubled Mask Fines for Travelers. What Does it Mean for Passengers? -  The New York TimesSource: The Washington Post, by Michael Laris and Justin George

Federal officials stopped enforcement of a federal mask mandate Monday in transportation settings after a federal judge struck down the requirement, raising public health concerns and prompting several airlines to announce that face coverings are optional on domestic flights.

 

U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle of the Middle District of Florida said the mandate exceeds the statutory authority of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Federal officials last week had extended the mask mandate for commercial flights and in other settings, including on buses, ferries and subways, until at least May 3.

 

The transportation mandate has been among the highest-profile mask requirements in the country, persisting after most school districts and other jurisdictions have allowed similar mandates to expire. Conflicts over masks have been particularly acute on airplanes, where some flight attendants have been physically attacked and verbally abused for enforcing mask rules.

The decision comes as coronavirus cases are again climbing in the Northeast as the BA.2 omicron subvariant, which is more contagious than its predecessor, becomes the predominant strain in the United States. Health officials say it’s not clear whether the rise is the start of a larger surge.

The CDC’s masking order has been enforced through directives issued by the Transportation Security Administration. A Biden administration official, who shared guidance with reporters on the condition of anonymity, said Monday evening that the court decision means the CDC’s order is “not in effect at this time. Therefore, the TSA will not enforce its Security Directives” requiring the face coverings.

Airlines began announcing they were dropping the requirement, with some caveats for international destinations. In a statement, United Airlines said that “effective immediately, masks are no longer required at United on domestic flights, select international flights (dependent upon the arrival country’s mask requirements) or at U.S. airports.”

In the Washington region, Metro announced late Monday that masks are optional on its rail and bus systems for customers and Metro employees.

In her decision Monday, Mizelle, who was appointed by President Donald Trump and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, said the CDC had relied on a 1944 law, the Public Health Service Act, to impose the mandate. But the government’s argument that it put the mask requirement in place for the purpose of “sanitation” falls short, Mizelle argued.

“Wearing a mask cleans nothing. At most, it traps virus droplets. But it neither ‘sanitizes’ the person wearing the mask nor ‘sanitizes’ the conveyance,” Mizelle wrote.

 

The case was brought on behalf of a legal group known as Health Freedom Defense Fund and airline passengers, including Ana Daza, who said she has anxiety aggravated by wearing a mask.

Mizelle found for the plaintiffs on three key issues, ruling that the CDC had exceeded its legal authority, that it had improperly avoided notice and comment procedures, and that its mandate was “arbitrary and capricious.” In her ruling, Mizelle argued that the mask mandate wrongly curtailed passengers’ freedom of movement.

“Anyone who refuses to comply with the condition of mask wearing is — in a sense — detained or partially quarantined by exclusion” from their means of transportation, she wrote.

 

Industry trade group Airlines for America said U.S. airlines “have been strong advocates for eliminating pandemic-era policies and are encouraged by the lifting of the federal transportation mask mandate.” The group said high U.S. immunity levels and widespread vaccine accessibility, plus hospital grade cabin-air filtration, should give travelers confidence.

The CDC said Monday it doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

In a legal filing last month defending the mandate, Justice Department lawyers said the plaintiffs in this case had relied on an “unduly narrow and grammatically incorrect” interpretation of the public health law. They noted that Congress had authorized health officials to make and enforce regulations “necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases” from outside the country, or within it, using “sanitation” and “other measures.” They also noted that the Supreme Court, in a case last year, said those measures relate directly to preventing the interstate spread of disease “by identifying, isolating, and destroying the disease itself.”

 

Masking requirements have generally been made after considering emerging epidemiology on restricting the spread of the virus, and not on an “arbitrary or capricious” basis, Jeanne Marrazzo, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said in an email while quoting the words Mizelle used in her ruling.

“I believe the CDC was simply erring on the side of caution given the extraordinary mixing opportunities afforded by airports and mingling that occurs there,” she said. “On the plane, while it’s flying, as I have said before, air exchange is good, but we still don’t know HOW good it is with this much more contagious new variant.”

The Biden administration announced the mandate quickly after President Biden came into office, following the Trump administration’s resistance. Airline policies at the time had required that masks be worn.

 

“This is obviously a disappointing decision,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday, adding that the CDC and White House continue to recommend wearing masks in public transportation settings.

She said the Department of Homeland Security — which includes the TSA — was reviewing the decision. The Justice Department will “make any determinations about litigation,” Psaki said. A Justice Department spokeswoman said the agency is reviewing the decision and declined to comment further.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines, said many legal uncertainties remained on Monday. In a statement, she urged “calm and consistency in the airports and on planes.”

“The last thing we need for workers on the frontlines or passengers traveling today is confusion and chaos,” she said.

Nelson urged travelers to check with airlines for their masking requirements. She said clear communication would help flight attendants and other front-line workers avoid problems that could stem from the confusion over changing rules.

“In aviation operations, it is impossible to simply flip a switch from one minute to the next. It takes a minimum of 24-48 hours to implement new procedures and communicate this throughout the entire network,” she said.

A March poll by the health group KFF found Americans were roughly divided on whether the federal government should extend the mask requirement for airplanes, trains and other public transportation (48 percent) or let it expire (51 percent). More than 7 in 10 Democrats said it should be extended, while 76 percent of Republicans supported letting it expire.

Fliers on Monday had mixed reactions.

Stephanie Dexter, her husband, Brad, and their daughter, Eva, wore surgical masks and cone-shaped K95 masks as they walked out of Reagan National Airport on Monday afternoon. They had flown Eva from Omaha to D.C. for a spring vacation, where they planned to visit monuments and museums. The mask mandate did not weigh heavily on their minds.

“We were fine wearing them today,” said Stephanie Dexter. “I’m an asthmatic. I’m fine not getting sick.”

Phil Delin, 67, of Prince George’s County, Md., said he had heard “a sprinkle” about the judge’s ruling before he arrived at the airport with his golf clubs for a trip to Las Vegas.

“I still don’t understand a Florida judge reversing a federal mandate when the mandate is backed by as much science as it is,” he said. He had no second thoughts about wearing a mask aboard his Monday night flight.

Simon Rojas, 29, who had flown back into Reagan National from Las Vegas in shorts, stood outside while waiting for his ride as a chilly wind forced others waiting for a ride back into the terminal. He said he was pleased the judge ruled against the mandate, saying it made no sense to wear a mask on a plane when people are so close and are lifting masks to drink and eat.

“Just take them off,” Rojas, of Laurel, Md., said of mask regulations. “In the news, they’ve been saying the death rate is going down, right? Also, I think if you’re in such a closed space like a plane, that mask isn’t doing anything.”

The Biden administration has faced growing pressure to lift the mask requirement for air travel and public transit. Earlier this month, Republican leaders on the House and Senate transportation committees reiterated their call for Biden to “rescind or decline to extend the mask mandate.”

In late March, 21 mostly Republican-led states sued the government, seeking to immediately end the mask requirement.

Last month, executives from 10 airlines, including American, United and Delta, sent a letter to Biden urging him to end pandemic-related travel policies, including the mask mandate.

The ruling comes as airlines are seeing a surge in spring travel — one the industry anticipates will extend through the summer and beyond. Transportation Security Administration officials have reported an increase in the number of people screened at airport checkpoints, with many days routinely topping the 2 million mark, as they had before the pandemic.

Appeals court rules against Obama administration on ACA contraception opt-out

The 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld two lower court rulings against the Obama administration, saying provisions that let employers opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that health plans cover contraception violate the employers’ religious freedom. Other federal appeals courts have said the opt-out provisions reasonably accommodate religious freedom. The conflicting ruling increases the likelihood that the issue will go to the Supreme Court. Reuters (9/17), Bloomberg (9/17)

Small Businesses Must Gather Data Now for Obamacare 2016 Deadline

Companies with 50 to 99 employees will fall under the federal healthcare mandate starting January 2016, but they should prepare now. Small companies should begin tracking data to help them determine compliance and which employees are entitled to an offer of coverage in 2016. “Unfortunately, no magic bullet exists in the form of affordable software that gathers data in one tidy place; nor is the government ready with a form. The required reporting is detailed. Leaving the record keeping to the 11th hour will be too cumbersome for smaller companies…Planning facilitates developing the best ACA strategy,” says Finny Varghese, an expert on the ACA

Here’s what companies need to do according to Lexus/Nexus:

• Classify workers. Coverage is required for full-time employees, those working 30 or more hours weekly, and full time equivalents. FTEs are calculated as the number of part-time workers multiplied by the number of hours worked per month divided by 120. Companies may discover their total full-time count falls below the range.

• Define standard measurement periods for determining employee classifications. There will be one look-back period for ongoing employees and measurement periods for each new hire. Tracking this year provides a beta test for 2016 data and could guide classifications.

• Detail each employee who gets coverage under current healthcare policy. This information includes the duration of any waiting period, months of eligibility and coverage, premium for the lowest cost option for employee-only coverage, and whether coverage meets the government standard.

New IRS Guide Tells You if You Qualify for a Health Coverage Exemption

The Affordable Care Act calls for each individual to have qualifying health insurance coverage, but there are exemptions under the following circumstances:

  • Your annual premiums would be more than 8% of your household income.
  • You have had a gap in coverage for fewer than three consecutive months.
  • You qualify for an exemption for one of several other reasons, including having a hardship that prevents you from getting coverage or belonging to a group that is exempt.

On IRS.gov/ACA, you can find a comprehensive list of the coverage exemptions.

What Clients Need to Know About ACA Changes

Susan Polk, a health insurance agent in San Luis Obispo, issued an advisory to help her clients sort out the Affordable Care Act (ACA), “Some people think that, come January 2014, a new insurance card will magically appear in their mailbox. This is most certainly not true. Enrollment will not be automatic, except in certain circumstances when you participate in an employer group plan of more than 200 employees, and you must make choices among various options, choose a plan, and enroll yourself and family members,” Polk says. She outlines the following key points:

 Individual health insurance – All insurance is guaranteed issue, meaning you are guaranteed to get coverage. There are no waiting periods for pre-existing conditions. Higher premiums cannot be charged for any health conditions, although an individual can be charged up to 50% more for smoking. California has decided not to implement this option.

 Free or low-cost health insurance – Individuals and families making less than 138% of the Federal Poverty Level (also known as the Federal Income Guidelines) will be eligible for MediCal in California (133% will be eligible for Medicaid in most other states). There is no longer an asset test, so people can now hold onto their retirement plans and other property and still qualify for free or greatly reduced medical care.

• Health Plans Offered – Insurance companies can offer four plans of insurance. Bronze plans must provide at least 60% coverage. Silver plans must provide at least 70% of coverage. Gold plans must provide at least 80% of coverage, and Platinum plans must provide at least 90% coverage. Deductibles and co-pays may vary from company to company. The only requirement is that they can prove that the actuarial value of the coverage meets the minimum percentages.

• Premium subsidies – Individuals and families making between 138% and 400% of the Federal Poverty Level will be eligible for premium subsidies. Your eligibility in 2014 will depend on your income in 2012. Each subsequent year, the eligibility will be based on your income in the calendar year two years prior, for example, in 2015 your subsidy would be based on your 2013 income. By purchasing insurance through the Health Benefit Exchange, they will be subsidized for the difference between the second lowest cost Silver Plan and the amount they are expected to pay, which varies from 2% to 9.5% of the Modified Adjusted Gross Income. For those who make over 400% of the Federal Poverty Level, there is no subsidy. However, they will be able to purchase any of the same products outside of the Exchange with no underwriting.

• Individual Mandate – Individuals will be required to purchase medical insurance starting in January 1, 2014. This is called the ìIndividual Mandate. Those not enrolling will pay a penalty along with their income taxes annually to the Internal Revenue Service, beginning in 2015. The penalty for not participating in 2014 will be the greater of 1% of Modified Adjusted Gross Income or $95, whichever is greater. This will increase each year, until it is the greater of 2% or $295.

• When to Enroll – The first open enrollment will start on October 1, 2013, and will continue until March 31, 2014. After that, open enrollments will occur each fall between October 15th and December 7th. There will be no enrollment into individual insurance outside of open enrollment except for certain qualifying events, including losing other coverage, birth, divorce, death, and a few other life events.

• Grandfathered Plans – If you have present individual insurance, you may be able to keep it, if your original effective date was before March 23, 2010, and you have not made substantial changes to your policy. In this case, your plan is said to be grandfathered and you can keep the plan even after ObamaCare is fully implemented. President Obamaís message to Americans in January of 2010 was that if we liked our health plans, that we would be able to keep it. He makes good on that promise if your plan is grandfathered. If your plan is not grandfathered, it will go away on December 31, 2013. You will then have a choice of any health plan offered by any health insurer in your county.

• Why enroll through a broker? – Private insurance brokers will go through a formal training process to be eligible to enroll folks in the Health Insurance Exchange (in California, this is known as Covered California). Health insurance brokers are qualified to assist people. Their training and experience with health insurers will make them the optimal choice for your enrollment needs. They can help you choose the best plan for your circumstances and help you with the tools youíll need to find a doctor and access care.

Polk offers the following advice for 2013:
• Know your income and optimize the results. Falling above the 400% threshold will mean paying 100% of the cost of your health insurance with no subsidy. Some individuals may not want to fall below the 138% (in California, 133% in other States), as that would mean eligibility in MediCal or Medcaid and could restrict access to personal physicians.

• If your plan is grandfathered, don’t make any changes until after the summer or fall. A synopsis of plans will be available later in 2013. At that time, you will be able to preview plans and see how the premiums compare to your present plan. It is expected that once the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented, grandfathered plans will see much lower premium increases.

• Make your appointment early. We will begin making appointments in August for the October enrollment.

• Keep your records handy. You may be asked to bring your 2012 tax return to your appointment, and other important records. This information will help insurance agents quickly determine your eligibility for subsidies and help you get the best result. All personal information is kept strictly confidential.

Last Updated 06/29/2022

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