When the federal mandate requiring masks to be worn on planes and other public transportation crumbled last week, it was not because of lobbying by established trade organizations, or the strident calls of Republican lawmakers, or even a determination by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that masks were no longer necessary.
Instead, the mask mandate’s demise was brought about by an unlikely confluence of individuals: Leslie Manookian, a former Wall Street analyst living in Idaho who had founded an anti-Covid-regulation nonprofit; two Florida women who said their anxiety prevented them from wearing masks and, therefore, traveling; and a Trump-appointed federal judge who the American Bar Association said was too inexperienced to be appointed to the bench.
Within 24 hours of Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle’s ruling on April 18 that the federal government had overstepped its authority by requiring masks, which the Justice Department has since appealed, flight attendants, pilots and passengers were free to fly without masks, and public transit systems across the country were no longer requiring them. Even people who had been closely watching efforts to overturn the rule were surprised.
The peculiar back story of Judge Mizelle’s decision offers a window into the sometimes capricious way public health policy in the United States gets made, in which a lawsuit filed by a little-known organization that opposes masks and vaccine mandates can upend a rule crafted by doctors and scientists.
Heather Murphy and Charlie Savage
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