Gov. DeSantis doubles down on opposition to mask mandates in schools

‘There will be no restrictions and no mandates in the state of Florida’

Inside a restaurant full of unmasked supporters Friday morning, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he would sign an executive order “protecting the rights of parents to make this decision about wearing masks for their children.”

CAPE CORAL, Fla. – Inside a restaurant full of unmasked supporters Friday morning, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he would sign an executive order “protecting the rights of parents to make this decision about wearing masks for their children.”

“There will be no school closures. There will be no restrictions and no mandates in the state of Florida,” DeSantis told the cheering crowd. “Floridians have been and will remain free to choose what’s best for themselves and their families. We will protect their right to work, we’ll protect the right of businesses to operate and we will protect the right of our kids to attend school in person.”

No government official or major health group has recommended closing schools this fall, but with COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths at rates not seen since the winter surge, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week recommended “universal masking” in schools.

“Children should return to full-time in-person learning in the fall with proper prevention strategies in place,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensk said Tuesday. “CDC recommends community leaders encourage vaccination and universal masking to prevent further outbreaks in areas of substantial and high transmission with the delta variant.”

Scoffing at the revised CDC guidance, DeSantis questioned the potential health effects of forcing students to wear masks for hours at a time and said parents should be allowed to decide whether their children use face coverings.

“If you have been listening to some of the murmurs going around, particularly in Washington lately, if you listen to some of the stuff that’s being percolated around the CDC, there’s a movement to try to impose more restrictions on the American people,” DeSantis said at Two Meatballs in the Kitchen restaurant in Cape Coral.

No Florida school districts have said they are even considering not returning classroom learning when schools open next month, but Broward County on Wednesday decided to require masks for all students, teachers and staff — in violation of state law — and Miami-Dade is considering a similar rule.

Citing a Brown University economics study from May comparing the infection rate of students in Florida to other states in the 2020-21 school year, DeSantis said it found “no correlation of mask mandates and infection rates.”

DeSantis said his executive order will reinforce the Parents Bill of Rights the legislature passed and he signed in the spring that prevents any government institution from infringing on the “fundamental rights” of parents to direct the education, health care and mental health of their children.

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

The governor said he won’t stop any parent from having their child wear a mask if they think that’s the best option.

UNCUT: Gov. DeSantis’ remarks in Cape Coral

Several local officials, including the president of the Duval County Medical Society Foundation, have called on DeSantis to issue a different emergency order, one adding restrictions for government employees and others to respond to spiking rates of transmission and hospitals filling up with COVID-19 patients. Florida hospitals reported nearly 9,000 patients with COVID-19 on Thursday, not far off last year’s peak of close to 10,200 cases.

The state’s largest teachers’ union quickly reacted to DeSantis’ push back at locally-elected school boards making their own decisions.

“Gov. DeSantis continues to think that Tallahassee knows best what all Floridians need,” Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar said. “Instead, we ask Gov. DeSantis to allow all Florida’s citizens to have a voice by empowering the elected leaders of cities, counties and school districts to make health and safety decisions locally based on their unique needs and circumstances.”

On Thursday, The Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement supporting “the continued, universal use of masks and physical distancing in schools by all individuals including students, faculty members and staff through the end of the 2021-2022 school year.”

Similarly, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, who is seeking to unseat DeSantis in 2022, said local officials should have a say in mask decisions.

“The decisions about whether children should wear masks into school, or if you can have some virtual education, ought to be made on a local basis. Not necessarily Tallahassee down, but rather local districts up,” Crist, a congressman from St. Petersburg, told The News Service of Florida. “They know what their situation is, better than anybody.”

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, also running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2022, held a mid-day news conference at the Capitol and accused DeSantis of “pandering to that electorate that is anti-mask and anti-vax.”

“We need to be listening to scientists and to our medical doctors, not our politicians pandering to this pandemic,” Fried said.

Jacksonville State Rep. Angie Nixon, appearing at a Friday event promoting vaccinations, said DeSantis’ messaging is doing more harm than good.

“I think that’s going to have a negative effect on us trying to reduce the spread here in Florida,” Nixon said. “It’s very unfortunate here that the leadership in our state is not stepping up to the plate. That’s something, as a Democrat, as a state representative, we can’t play politics with people’s lives, and that’s what’s happening right now.”

In addition to announcing Friday that he will issue an executive order, DeSantis has suggested the possibility of calling a special legislative session to counter any moves by the federal government to require students to wear masks.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, called DeSantis’ plan for an executive order a “decisive action” that has the speaker’s “full support.”

“We’ve come a long way since the start of this pandemic, when a disease we knew so little about threatened to overwhelm our health care infrastructure,” Sprowls said in a statement. “We understand our situation so much more now than then, and with that understanding comes power and responsibility. While there are some public officials who will seek to use the power of government to compel uniformity and adherence to their preferred course of conduct, that approach is not in keeping with Florida values.”

In a separate statement, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said parents need to be involved when it comes to mask decisions.

“I trust Florida parents to evaluate all of the information available and make the best decision about whether or not their children will be wearing a mask when they return to school next month,” Simpson said.

Florida has been one of the hardest-hit areas of the country by the surge in COVID-19, accounting for about 20 percent of the cases nationally in recent days.

News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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