Federal courts relax COVID-19 mask requirements

R. Kelly's sex abuse trial continues at Brooklyn's Federal District Court in Brooklyn, New York
REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
  • Courts nationally revisit mask rules following new CDC guidance
  • All three Pennsylvania federal district courts suspend mask requirements

(Reuters) - A growing number of federal district courts from coast to coast are easing requirements for lawyers, staff and visitors to wear masks when entering their courthouses amid a nationwide decline in COVID-19 cases.

Since the beginning of March, more than a dozen district courts in states, including Connecticut, Missouri and Wisconsin, have issued orders relaxing or dropping requirements for people to wear face coverings aimed at reducing COVID-19's spread.

The latest include all three district courts in Pennsylvania, which on Monday in separate orders declared masks optional in their facilities, citing new guidance the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued last month.

The Pennsylvania district courts were joined on Monday by the U.S. District Courts for the Middle District of Florida, Kansas, the Northern District of Indiana, and the Eastern District of Oklahoma.

Other districts relaxing their masking rules this month include Massachusetts, the Eastern District of Virginia, and Western District of Washington, whose chief judge warned that masks could return if the situation changes.

"The Court sincerely hopes that this downward trend in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations will continue," Chief U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez in Seattle wrote in a Thursday order.

The changes came after the CDC on Feb. 25 dramatically eased its COVID-19 guidelines for masks, shifting from a focus on the rate of coronavirus transmission to monitoring local hospitalizations, hospital capacity and infection rates.

U.S. District Judge Juan Sanchez, the chief judge for the Philadelphia-based Eastern District of Pennsylvania, in an order said that while masks are now optional there starting Wednesday, people are "encouraged" to wear them if they wish to do so.

Many of the districts that suspended mask requirements still give individual judges discretion to require them in their own courtrooms, and several key courts continue to enforce mask mandates.

Those courts include the Manhattan-based Southern District of New York, which requires anyone in its courthouses to wear N95 or KN95 masks, and the district court in Washington, D.C., which reaffirmed its mask requirements on March 2.

Amira Roess, an epidemiologist at George Mason University who has advised courts including those two on COVID-19, said the decision to lift mask mandates "depends on the objectives of the organization and the local epidemiologic situation."

"If an organization wants to avoid transmission and disruption to operations due to infection, then mask mandates could be warranted," she said in an email.

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.