Miami Herald | By Alex Daugherty | August 26, 2021
South Florida’s Republicans in Washington aren’t getting behind Gov. Ron DeSantis’ fight against local mask mandates in schools.
Sen. Marco Rubio has said that mask mandate debates — on all sides — are a “waste of time.”
Sen. Rick Scott said, “I don’t believe the government should be mandating things.”
And Miami’s three Republicans in the House of Representatives have declined to weigh in on DeSantis’ behalf after local elected officials on the Miami-Dade County School Board voted 7-1 to impose a mask mandate in public schools over the objections of the Florida Department of Education.
“That’s a state issue,” Republican Rep. Carlos Gimenez said in an email.
The Republicans holding federal office don’t have the power to impose or reject mask mandates in Florida, but DeSantis’ ongoing court battle against local school districts who wish to impose them is generating national attention from President Joe Biden. Biden has voiced support and offered federal funds to pay financial penalties imposed on administrators who back mask mandates as Florida’s COVID caseload breaks daily records.
“We’re not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children,” Biden said at a news conference last week.
DeSantis has maintained that the State Department of Education will punish officials who do not reverse mask mandates, which are in effect in 10 of Florida’s 67 counties. Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough and Orange, Florida’s five counties with more than 1 million people each, have all required that students wear masks in class. Leon County Judge John C. Cooper is expected to rule Friday on a case challenging DeSantis’ mask mandate ban brought by parents from Hillsborough, Pinellas, Palm Beach and Alachua counties.
But Scott and Rubio, who, like DeSantis, could run for president in 2024, aren’t backing his ongoing fight against mask mandates.
“I don’t believe we can mask our way out of this,” Rubio told reporters on Capitol Hill. “I think the masking debate is a waste of time because only a vaccine surge is going to turn back a hospitalization surge.”
Rubio also criticized Biden’s decision to weigh in, accusing the president of using the debate on mask mandates in Florida to deflect from his handling of the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan.
“It is a lot easier to take cheap shots at Florida than actually lead a country. Instead of calling an interim superintendent here in Florida, perhaps President Biden should have been focused on what was happening on his watch in Afghanistan,” Rubio said in an email to the Miami Herald last week.
Scott, in a radio interview with WIOD on Wednesday, said the government’s role is to help people make informed decisions, not mandate certain behavior.
“I believe that the role of the government is to educate, that’s our biggest role, to give people information,” Scott said when asked about the Leon County court case. “I don’t believe the government should be mandating things. I think the government should be giving people information to make informed decisions and I believe the private sector has the right to make their own decisions.”
Scott said he never mandated evacuations ahead of hurricanes or halted travel during the Zika virus, but instead informed people of the risks associated with not listening to the advice of disaster experts or public health officials.
Scott said. “I never told people you had to do a certain thing with regards to Zika … but I said if you go here, you have a great chance of getting it.”
The two senators’ position on state-level penalties for mask mandates is similar to their position on cruises, another arena where DeSantis has tried to use the courts to fight vaccine mandates on ships that set sail from Florida ports. They’ve stayed away from criticizing DeSantis directly, but said they support private businesses doing what they feel is best.
“At some point you’ve got to trust people here,” Rubiosaid in a June interview, when asked about vaccine mandates on cruises. “Government’s job is not to tell everybody every decision they can make.”
U.S. Reps. Maria Elvira Salazar and Mario Diaz-Balart have also not publicly backed DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates.
The Republican position, to not criticize DeSantis while emphasizing the importance of choice with regards to mask-wearing and mandates, is different than that of Florida Democrats, who overwhelmingly favor mask mandates in schools.
“There’s a lack of responsibility, a lack of any common sense and empathy towards these children going to school,” said U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, a Democrat and former governor who is hoping to run against DeSantis in 2022. “God bless Broward County and Alachua County for standing up and fighting back against the governor and his ill-conceived counsel.”