Hours after a federal judge overturned a mandate for passengers to wear face masks, a video appeared to show a pilot announcing travellers to ditch face coverings mid-flight.
Ben Dietderich, the press secretary for Republican Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska, tweeted the scenes from an Alaska Airlines flight in what appeared to show the pilot breaking the news of dropping mask mandates to passengers and asking them to take off their masks if they want to.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking. This is the most important announcement I’ve ever made. The federal mask mandate is over. Take off your mask if you choose!” Mr Dietderich quoted the pilot as saying.
On Monday, most of the major US airlines announced they are dropping requirements for travellers or employees to wear face coverings on their flights. The American carriers included American Airlines Group Inc, Alaska Air Group Inc, Delta Air Lines Inc, Southwest Airlines Co and United Airlines Holdings Inc, among others.
The announcements came hours after a judge in Florida on Monday struck down the mask mandate that had been extended by US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a month to monitor the surge in Covid-19 infections across the country.
After the ruling, the Transit Security Administration (TSA) said it would not enforce the mask mandate, prompting confusion and mixed response from travellers.
This comes as the seven-day rolling average for confirmed positive cases in the US nears 40,000 and one week average for Covid-19 deaths is 409. The current surge in the US is fuelled by a more contagious BA.2 variant.
It overturned the requirement by CDC that last week said it was reserving its Level 4 travel health notices "for special circumstances, such as rapidly escalating case trajectory or extremely high case counts”.
The decision of US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle — an appointee of President Donald Trump — was enacted by multiple airlines while passengers were in mid-flight or in airports, with several videos emerging to show mid-flight announcements by pilots.
The video shared from an Alaska Airlines flight showed passengers cheering and applauding as the pilot congratulated them following the announcement of the ruling.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking. This is the most important announcement I’ve ever made. The federal mask mandate is over. Take off your mask if you choose!”
A wonderful moment mid flight on @alaskaair today! pic.twitter.com/nWSatDRB83
— Ben Dietderich (@ben_dietd) April 18, 2022
However, several people have expressed dismay at what they called a premature and potentially dangerous decision as a number of countries continue to report a high number of cases.
Scott Hechinger, a civil rights attorney who was travelling from Florida to LaGuardia when the ruling came, documented the journey in a Twitter thread and described the decision as “stupid” and “nonsensical”.
“And outcome determinative. And it’s outrageous a single judge in one state can make national health policy. But I’m currently dealing with the immediate impact of the decision. So not really in the mood to get into more,” he said.
Hearing coughs. Sneezes. People just breathing in this COVID air. Meanwhile, just finished wiping down my area with Clorox.
— Scott Hechinger (@ScottHech) April 19, 2022
“Wonderful? More like totally awful - for anyone on that flight who chose to fly only because they believed masks would be required. I hope some of them sue the ass off the airline and the pilot for so cavalierly putting their health at risk,” Jan Brown, a Twitter user said.
The Biden administration could still appeal the judge’s decision.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration is reviewing the ruling.
“Certainly no one here is trying to provoke uncertainty with passengers,” she told reporters on Monday. “We also think the mask mandate should be in place and that it’s safer for individuals who are flying to continue to wear masks. We would say to anyone sitting out there: we’d recommend you wear masks on the airplane.”