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U.S. President Joe Biden could not hide his ambivalence this week when asked whether Americans should continue to wear masks on airplanes and on public transit.

The decision to wear a mask is “up to them,” Mr. Biden said Monday, after a Florida district court judge appointed by former president Donald Trump struck down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mask mandate. The U.S. Justice Department said it would appeal the ruling, after the CDC deemed that the measure “remains necessary for public health.” But an appeal carries the risk that a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court could permanently undercut the CDC’s authority.

Besides, Democrats are themselves divided over whether the public-transportation mask mandate is a hill they should risk dying on, only months ahead of midterm elections that threaten their control of both the House of Representatives and Senate. Not when most Americans no longer see much point in wearing masks on public transportation, when almost no one is wearing them anywhere else any more and when the CDC’s own credibility on the masking question was shot long ago.

“I’m completely over mask mandates,” New York Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney told Axios in March, after the Biden administration announced an extension of the public transportation mask mandate until April 18. (The mandate was subsequently extended until May 3.) “I don’t think they make sense any more.”

Mr. Maloney chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is responsible for protecting the party’s House majority in November. He knows better than anyone how the Biden administration’s handling of mask and vaccine mandates is playing in the heartland. Most Americans think too many public-health diktats have been based on politics rather than science.

Top Democrats, meanwhile, have questioned the wisdom of appealing this week’s ruling.

“The country clearly wants to move on,” former senior Obama administration adviser David Axelrod told The New York Times. “Mandatory masking is a volatile issue. So, my instinct is that the path of least resistance would be to stand down, on the grounds that the clock is quickly running out anyway.”

The mask mandate, which had been one of the last public-health measures still in place, came to be a symbol of the CDC’s politicization under both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump. The latter curtailed the once widely-admired agency’s independence during the early months of the pandemic; the former signed an executive order on his first day in office, directing the CDC to impose the mask mandate along with several other health measures.

It was not until January that the CDC clarified that “some types of masks and respirators provide more protection to the wearer than others.” Until then, it had not distinguished between the effectiveness of cloth masks on the one hand, and surgical and N95 masks on the other, even though it had become widely known that cloth masks are far inferior.

That fact alone made the public transportation mask mandate, which allows for cloth face coverings, the subject of scorn and cynicism. Indeed, in her Monday decision, Judge Kathryn Mizelle noted that the “mandate did not differentiate between kinds of masks based on their efficacy.” The CDC’s guidance said “masks can either be manufactured or homemade and should be a solid piece of material, without slits, exhalation valves, or punctures.”

The relevance of the mask mandate became even more dubious as other public-health restrictions fell by the wayside.

“It makes no sense that people are still required to wear masks on airplanes, yet are allowed to congregate in crowded restaurants, schools and at sporting events without masks, despite none of these venues having the protective air filtration system that aircraft do,” the chief executive officers of the largest U.S. airlines wrote in a Mar. 23 letter to Mr. Biden.

The Florida judge ruled that the CDC exceeded its statutory authority in imposing the mask mandate and failed to adequately explain its decisions. Indeed, much of the scientific data supporting mask mandates has been incomplete, with many studies simply comparing COVID-19 case counts in places with mandates to those in places without them. Critics of the CDC’s public transportation mask mandate focused on the paucity of hard data based on randomized control trials providing conclusive evidence.

The CDC has emerged from the pandemic with a serious image problem. Its credibility has been dented, its independence compromised and its authority challenged. That is a worrying development that bodes ill for future public-health crises.

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