Orlando Sentinel | By Steven Lemongello | July 29, 2021
Some counties and school boards in Florida are flouting Gov. Ron DeSantis and the law he pushed for earlier this year by reinstating or keeping mask rules in response to the surge in coronavirus cases and COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide.
School mask mandates such as those in Broward County “will be addressed,” DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw said, referring to DeSantis’ call for a special session of the Legislature “to ensure that all Florida school districts are mask optional.”
But she added that Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings’ state of emergency declaration, which urges residents to wear masks and businesses to require them but stopped short of imposing a mandate, is “not inconsistent with Gov. DeSantis’ position.”
As for other counties, including Miami-Dade and Broward, which imposed indoor mask mandates at county facilities Wednesday and Thursday, “It is not the role of any level of government – local, state, or federal – to micromanage individuals’ decisions or fine people for declining to wear a face covering,” Pushaw said.
But those orders might still avoid a response from DeSantis as long as there are no penalties enforced, she said, as “recommendations don’t run afoul of state law.”
“We’re waiting to see if those local authorities are actually imposing mandates, in the sense that they will attempt to fine or press charges against people who violate mask guidance, or if they are making recommendations for voluntary compliance in the same manner that Mayor Demings did,” Pushaw said. “Unless I missed something, Mayor [Daniella] Levine-Cava hasn’t said that Miami-Dade County will fine or charge individuals or businesses for COVID violations.”
The conflicts come as DeSantis not only defends his anti-mandate stance but also continues to associate himself with anti-mask rhetoric. He held a secret meeting this week with a child psychologist who called mask-wearers “retard[s]” on Twitter.
On Wednesday, he mocked mask-wearing before 450 largely unmasked attendees at a conference in Salt Lake City by saying, “Did you not get the CDC’s memo? I don’t see you complying.”
In that speech, he claimed that mask mandates could lead to harsher government restrictions to fight the virus.
“It is very important,” he said, “that we say unequivocally no to lockdowns, no to school closures, no to restrictions and no to mandates.”
DeSantis has jumped to the head of conservative conference presidential election polls — except for when former President Trump is on the ballot — by portraying Florida as an “oasis of freedom” from COVID restrictions, a theme since the state the last statewide coronavirus restrictions on bars ended last summer.
The state’s return to in-person schools last year has been touted by the governor as one of his biggest accomplishments. But he also has been long opposed to any mask mandate for students, saying he would call the Legislature back if the federal government imposed a national mandate as President Biden has indicated he was considering.
Several of the controversial health experts DeSantis has held roundtables with over the last year have said children should not wear masks at all, despite U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending mask-wearing by children age 2 and up.
Los Angeles-based clinical psychiatrist Mark McDonald, who gained notoriety after a secret meeting with DeSantis earlier this week for his tweet calling people who wear masks “retard[s]”, told DeSantis that children wearing masks is “child abuse.” DeSantis himself said he didn’t want children “suffering under these masks during the school year.”
But the Broward School Board voted to keep its mask mandates for students Wednesday, which could lead to a direct confrontation with DeSantis and the Legislature. Board member Patti Good said, “Making masks voluntary means most students aren’t going to wear them.”
As for countywide mask mandates, DeSantis vacated all fines for businesses and individuals who violated local mask mandates before outright pardoning them, an action he took on the same day as a new law kicked in giving the governor power to invalidate local mask measures and other restrictions.
Levine Cava, who recently was repeatedly at DeSantis’ side during the long recovery process at the Surfside collapse that killed 98, ordered an indoor mask mandate for county facilities in Miami-Dade County on Wednesday.
“We have all come too far. We have all sacrificed too much in this past almost year and a half. We cannot turn back now,” Levine Cava said. “It is essential that we do everything we can to keep building on the progress that we have made.”
But the order did not include any mandates for businesses or restaurants, as Pushaw noted. Instead, she only recommended that everyone wear masks in large crowds or close spaces.
Broward’s similar order, issued later Thursday, also did not include mandates for businesses or any specifics on penalties.
In Orange, Demings acknowledged his hands were tied by the new law but issued an order strongly urging residents to wear masks indoors and businesses to require them. Walt Disney World, the county’s largest employer, reimposed indoor mask requirements for guests and employees as of Friday.
In response, Pushaw said Demings “acknowledged at his presser yesterday that the county doesn’t have the authority under state law to enforce COVID mandates with fines or penalties. … Mayor Demings implied that voluntary action is just as effective, if not more so, than government mandates – which is not inconsistent with Governor DeSantis’ position.”
In a lengthy statement released Wednesday night, DeSantis appeared to acknowledge that businesses could impose their own mask restrictions.
“I think a lot of businesses were frustrated, because even though I suspended all the fines over the summer and even though I remitted all of the business fines in March and told them I would keep doing it, they were feeling like they’re being restricted to do these enforcements,” DeSantis said. ”Ultimately we’re not preventing a business from making those types of decisions.”