FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A Florida judge on Monday upheld a county's coronavirus ordinance that requires masks be worn in public places like stores, saying government officials have the authority to protect their residents from the spread of infectious diseases.
Circuit Judge John Kastrenakes, noting Palm Beach County’s recent spike in cases and deaths, rejected the challengers' claim that the recently enacted ordinance violates their rights to privacy and personal autonomy.
Citing a century-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said a state can mandate vaccinations, Kastrenakes said county commissioners came to “a reasonable and logical conclusion that mandating the wearing of facial coverings best serves their constituents.”
“This Court is not prepared to find that unelected persons residing or remaining in any city or town where COVID-19 is prevalent, and enjoying the general protection afforded by an organized local effort, may nonetheless defy the will of its constituted authorities,” he wrote.
Several Florida counties and cities have enacted similar ordinances in recent weeks as coronavirus cases and deaths have skyrocketed around the state. This is at least the fourth Florida city or county ordinance to be upheld.
Attorney Louis Leo IV, who represented the challengers, blasted the ruling, saying on Facebook it is “paving the way for continued government tyranny under the guise of disease prevention.” He promised an appeal.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has refused to issue a statewide mask requirement, saying what's right for large, urban counties like Palm Beach and Miami-Dade, which have enacted ordinances, might not be right for small, rural counties in the Panhandle and north Florida.
Some Miami-Dade County doctors and nurses begged DeSantis to reconsider, saying in an online press conference organized by their union that the requirement should be statewide. They said hospitals in parts of the state are at the breaking point. The state reported that about 9,030 people were hospitalized Monday morning with coronavirus, about a 2% drop from Friday.
“Our health care systems are to the top. We cannot handle this if nothing is done. We can’t take it any more ... it’s getting pretty bad,” said Maria Sulayman, an ICU nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital who just returned to work after being out five weeks with COVID-19.
Dr. Dave Woolsey, who works in Jackson’s hard-hit emergency room, said mandating masks statewide will slow the virus's spread.
"This is just science and our personal beliefs and our political beliefs have nothing to do with it,” he said.
The Palm Beach ruling came as Florida passed 6,000 coronavirus deaths, with almost 40% of those happening during the current spike that began about a month ago. The state health department reported another 76 deaths, bringing the number of people in Florida who have died of coronavirus since March 1 to at least 6,048. About 2,400 of those have died during July.
The state recorded 8,892 new confirmed cases Monday, the lowest number in three weeks, bringing the total to almost 424,000. The positivity rate for tests over the last seven days is 19.2% — that is about where it has been for about the last three weeks, but six times higher than it was two months ago just before the number of cases began spiking followed a few weeks later by the number of deaths.
DeSantis said he was “encouraged” Monday by the decline in new cases and hospitalizations.
Dr. Roger Shapiro, an associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard University and a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist, said Monday it is unclear when Florida will get its coronavirus outbreak under control.
“This can continue to spread until we socially distance and until we all wear masks in public. What I’m fearful about right now is that there are many elderly in Florida, so many in nursing homes. As it enters those spaces it will be difficult to contain.”
DeSantis has made protecting nursing homes a priority. He banned nursing home visits in March and employees are regularly tested.
DeSantis hosted Vice President Mike Pence in Miami on Monday afternoon, where Pence announced that South Florida will be part of testing for an experimental coronavirus vaccine. Pence said 1,000 volunteers are being sought in the area, with 500 getting the vaccine being tested and 500 receiving a placebo. Volunteers won’t know if they’re getting the real shot or a dummy version. Thirty regions around the country are being used for the tests.
AP reporters Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg. Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami and Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale contributed to this report.