DeSantis says he’ll sign order allowing parents to ignore COVID-19 school mask mandates

Orlando Sentinel | By Steven Lemongello | July 30, 2021

Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday he would sign an executive order to give parents the right to ignore any COVID-19 school mask mandates such as the one in Broward County.

DeSantis said the Parents Bill of Rights he signed into law last month gives him the authority to issue an emergency rule “protecting the rights of parents to make this decision about wearing masks for their children.”

At an event before a largely maskless restaurant crowd in Cape Coral, DeSantis vowed he would not change his COVID policies despite the skyrocketing number of cases and hospitalizations in the state due to the highly infectious delta variant.

“If you listen to some of the stuff that’s being percolated around the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], there’s a movement to try to impose more restrictions on the American people,” DeSantis said. “And I just want to say in Florida, there will be no lockdowns. There will be no school closures. There will be no restrictions or mandates in the state of Florida.”

Florida’s daily COVID numbers hit a high on Wednesday not seen since the post-holiday surge in January, with 17,589 new cases. More than 7,000 people have been hospitalized with the virus in the last week and another 1,500 are suspected COVID hospital admissions, according to a White House report released July 26.

The state has seen a 1,780%increase in new cases in the past month.

Broward schools voted to continue its mask policy this week. Central Florida school districts dropped their mask mandates this summer, making them optional instead for the new year.

The Broward district is unlikely to challenge DeSantis’ order, said School Board member Debbi Hixon.

“If he makes an emergency rule, and we are not legally allowed to mandate masks, then we will have to change our policy,” Hixon said. “I am not looking to defy the governor. I believe it is an irresponsible decision, but if it is the law, I will agree to follow it.”

School Board member Sarah Leonardi echoed Hixon, saying that while both the CDC and the American Association of Pediatrics recommended that we require masks in schools and “I’ve heard overwhelmingly from parents, students, and educators throughout Broward County thanking the board for continuing our masking policy … It is within the governor’s power to override that policy.

“If he chooses to do so he will disappoint a lot of constituents and I believe we will see cases in and out of schools continue to increase,” Leonardi said.

DeSantis’s announcement comes one day after his press secretary Christina Pushaw said Broward Schools’ decision would “be addressed.”

But at the same time, Pushaw said Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings’ mask guidance, and even Miami-Dade County’s mask order for county buildings, could be seen as acceptable as long as there were no restrictions on businesses or penalties.

A new law that went into effect on July 1 gives the governor the power to overrule local mandates and restrictions.

But DeSantis had already drawn a hard line when it came to school mask mandates, going as far as to threaten to bring the Legislature back for a special session if the federal government mandated it.

“I have young kids,” DeSantis said. “My wife and I are not going to do the mask with the kids. We never have. I want to see my kids smiling. I want them having fun.”

DeSantis added, “if a parent really feels that this is something that’s important for their kid, we’re not stopping that. They absolutely have every right to equip their students with whatever types of mask that they want. … I think that’s the fairest way to do it.”

The Florida Education Association decried what it called the “one-size-fits-all” order by the governor.

“Gov. DeSantis has made clear he does not respect the freedom of locally elected officials to do what they feel is best for their communities, based on input from parents, school employees, the available Covid data, and guidance from the medical community and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” the FEA stated.

DeSantis also said he believed the CDC’s data on the dangers of the delta variant was faulty, saying, “we have to use common sense.”

He said the news media covers COVID “in a way to create the most angst in the population.”

“If it’s a mild or asymptomatic case, that’s not something to get spun up about,” he said.

DeSantis’ comments came the day after AdventHealth, Central Florida’s largest health care system, went to “black status” with about 1,000 coronavirus patients hospitalized. The status includes deferring or canceling non-emergency procedures.

In Jacksonville, a pediatric infectious disease specialist said a record 20 children were hospitalized as of Wednesday in the city, according to Action News Jax, with similar reports elsewhere in the state.

Orlando Sentinel staff writer Leslie Postal and Sun Sentinel staff writer Scott Travis contributed to this report.

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