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Unmasking the Petty Tyrants

It's right when you're beginning to succeed that the bureaucracy fights back the hardest.

I was in the air somewhere over Wisconsin on Monday when the news broke that the federal mask mandate for transportation had been struck down by a federal judge in Florida. The two Delta Airlines flight attendants nearest me, in the process of delivering the beverage and snack service, were positively giddy over the news, which one passenger shared with them after reading a Fox News chyron from his headrest monitor. They asked the captain if we could now take off our masks—which several passengers had already begun to remove, and which these two attendants assured us they would not make us put back on—but the captain demurred.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We’ll be landing in Denver on schedule. Also, it’s come to my attention that a federal judge has apparently overturned the mask mandate on public transportation…I cannot verify that report at this time, but Delta’s policy when we took off in Detroit was to comply with the federal mask mandate, so I ask that you please continue to comply with”—and here he paused—”our rule.”

The mood outside the cockpit, however, could not be dampened. The head flight attendant seemed bitter as several passengers filed off the plane in Colorado brazenly maskless: “Please don’t walk past me without your mask on. We still have a mandate.” Yet within minutes of our touching down in Colorado Monday afternoon, Delta, American, United, JetBlue, Southwest, Frontier, Spirit, Alaskan, and Hawaiian airlines had all announced their new mask-optional policies. The petty tyrants were standing down, at least for the moment.

Trump-appointed Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle voided the mandate on several grounds, including that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had exceeded its authority under the Public Health Services Act of 1944. As if seeking to confirm the judge’s reasoning, the CDC released this statement Wednesday:

To protect CDC’s public health authority beyond the ongoing assessment announced last week, CDC has asked DOJ to proceed with an appeal in Health Freedom Defense Fund, Inc., et al., v. Biden, et al. [Emphasis added]

In other words, this has nothing to do with public health and everything to do with maintaining CDC authority over too many minuscule aspects of American life. The pandemic may be over, but the CDC has no intention of relinquishing its grasp on our day-to-day.

There is nothing new to be said about Covid-era governmental overreach at this point, but what has been said before is worth repeating: The final nail in the pandemic coffin must be the institution of legal limits on public-health authority, else our returned freedoms will only remain as long as those who hold the bureaucratic levers are unable to find a new crisis to extort. We cannot assume they will not find one sooner than we’d wish—whether it’s a new variant or something else—any more than we can assume that this time, the sweeping mandates they issue are actually in the interest of our health.

This latest development proves the point. Think about all the social pressures weighing on the Biden administration to remove the mask mandate for transportation: Mask mandates are gone in practically every other part of the country, and long gone in states like Florida, Texas, and Tennessee. Americans are tired of pretending an airport is any different from a conference room or a football game, and it turns out the airlines are, too. Clearly sick of being the enforcement arm of the public-health bureaucracy, regardless of their personal opinion on the policy, the CEOs of Delta, America, United, and other airlines asked Biden not to extend the mandate in March. Their rapid-fire announcements after Mizelle’s ruling Monday that masks will now be optional confirmed this was not just talk.

Biden extended the mandate anyway. And, you may have noticed, he awaited the CDC’s guidance as to whether or not he should direct the Department of Justice to appeal Monday’s ruling, because apparently the CDC is a bureau of legal experts as well as disease experts. It doesn’t take a microscope to see who is really in charge here. And lest we think this is only another instance of weakness from a dementia-laden president, we are wise to remember under whose administration this was allowed to become the norm.

It is precisely when we begin to take power away from those who have usurped it that they fight back the hardest. So we should be encouraged to see the bureaucracy fighting back—it means we are winning. But we must also recognize, as war in Ukraine, inflation, and midterms become tempting distractions, that the fight to end the pandemic of petty tyrants is still ongoing. That is, we can’t stop taking a 12-day antibiotic on day seven, simply because the most obvious symptoms have disappeared. Indeed, the heart of the disease is what continues to live beneath the surface.

about the author

Carmel Richardson is the 2021-2022 editorial fellow at The American Conservative. She received her B.A. from Hillsdale College in political philosophy with a minor in journalism. She firmly believes that the backroads are better than the interstate, and though she currently resides in Northern Virginia, her home state will always be Tennessee.

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