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Yes, TSA can mandate masks on planes and trains after legal challenge

The Supreme Court let a ruling stand that gives the TSA authority to require mask-wearing on planes, trains and other forms of public transportation.
Credit: AP
Travelers wearing protective masks as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus move about the terminal at the Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia, on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Respiratory illnesses, such as the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19, are currently surging across the United States. Many people on Twitter are urging public health agencies and federal officials to #BringBackMasks in an effort to stop the spread.

In April, the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) stopped requiring masks on public transit after a federal judge struck down the CDC’s federal mask mandate it had been enforcing.

But a post online claims it’s possible such a mandate could come back.

On Nov. 2, Lucky Tran, Ph.D., director of science communications and media relations at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, tweeted: “The Supreme Court has ruled that the TSA can issue mask mandates on planes, trains and other forms of transport.” The tweet has garnered over 14,000 likes since it was first posted.


Can TSA mandate masks on planes, trains, and other forms of transportation? 



This is true.

Yes, TSA can mandate masks on planes, trains, and other forms of transportation after the Supreme Court allowed a lower court’s ruling to stand.


On Oct. 31, the Supreme Court denied a request to hear the case Corbett v. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which questioned whether the TSA has the authority to issue mask mandates on public transit.

In January 2021, the TSA issued several directives and a mandate requiring masks to be worn in airports, on planes, buses, and trains in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jonathan Corbett, a California lawyer and frequent flyer, filed a petition a month later that challenged the TSA’s authority to issue a mask mandate on public transit.

On Dec. 10, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found no merit in Corbett’s claim, declaring that the TSA has the authority to address “safety and security threats” in the transportation system during the COVID-19 pandemic, including requiring face masks.

Corbett requested the Supreme Court to overturn the U.S. Court of Appeals ruling, but the high court denied his petition to review the case, allowing the lower court’s ruling to stand. This means the TSA still has the authority to require mask-wearing on planes, in airports, and in other forms of public transit if they decide to issue mask mandates in the future.

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Corbett v. TSA and the CDC's federal mask mandate, which was struck down in April by a Florida judge, are two separate court cases that are indirectly related, according to Lindsay Wiley, a law professor at UCLA Law. 

In an email, Wiley said the April court decision to overturn the federal mask mandate "did not address the question of TSA's statutory authority to issue a directive requiring face coverings." Instead, it focused exclusively on the CDC's authority, not the TSA's, which Corbett v. TSA solely questioned. 

"The TSA’s Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring face coverings (and all subsequent renewals) included language indicating that TSA’s directives were 'enforcing' the CDC’s January 2021 order requiring masks on public conveyances and in transportation hubs. In this sense, the TSA directives did not rely exclusively on TSA’s own statutory authority; they incorporated CDC’s authority as well," Wiley told VERIFY. 

“In April 2022, when the district court decision in Health Freedom Defense Fund v. Biden invalidated CDC’s order, that arguably put the TSA’s directives on shakier ground, since they directly referenced the CDC’s order in addition to citing TSA’s independent statutory authority,” Wiley said. 

TSA could have issued a new version of its directives that did not reference or rely on the CDC order but exclusively on TSA's independent authority at any point between April and Oct. 31, Wiley said. However, TSA’s requirement to wear masks expired on April 18 when the federal mask mandate was struck down and is not currently in effect. 

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