Judge blocks Florida governor’s order banning school mask mandates

Tallahassee circuit judge rules against Gov. DeSantis, Board of Education

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Circuit Judge John Cooper concluded a lengthy explanation of Florida law and previous court cases Friday morning before announcing that Florida law does not allow the state to enforce a ban on mask mandates against school districts that have implemented them to fight COVID-19.

“The law expressly permits school boards to adopt policies regarding the healthcare of students such as a face mask mandate even if a parent disagrees with that policy,” Cooper wrote.

The ruling came as coronavirus cases are increasing in schools across the state, prompting student quarantines by the thousands in some districts. Ten districts -- including Duval and Alachua counties -- have defied the governor’s order, enacting mask mandates with exceptions only for medical reasons. Counties with such mask requirements now represent about half of Florida’s 2.8 million students.

After a three-day hearing, the Florida Second Judicial Circuit judge ruled that Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Board of Education’s actions on mask mandates are “without legal authority” and are by definition “arbitrary” and “capricious.”

Circuit Judge John Cooper concluded a lengthy explanation of Florida law and previous court cases Friday morning before announcing that Florida law does not allow the state to enforce a ban on mask mandates against school districts that have implemented them to fight COVID-19.

Cooper said that while the governor and others have argued that a new Florida law gives parents the ultimate authority to oversee health issues for their children, it also exempts government actions that are needed to protect public health and are reasonable and limited in scope. He said a school district’s decision to require student masking to prevent the spread of the virus falls within that exemption.

“I conclude that this evidence demonstrates that facemask policies that follow CDC guidance are, at this point in time, reasonable and consistent with the best scientific and medical and public opinion guidance at this time,” Cooper said. “I am enforcing the bill passed by the Legislature and requiring that anyone who uses that bill has to follow all of the provisions, not some of the provisions.”

The judge also noted that two Florida Supreme Court decisions from 1914 and 1939 found that individual rights are limited by their impact on the rights of others. For example, he said, adults have the right to drink alcohol but not to drive drunk. There is a right to free speech, but not to harass or threaten others or yell “fire” in a crowded theater, he said.

“We don’t have that right because exercising the right in that way is harmful or potentially harmful to other people,” Cooper said. He added that the law “is full of examples of rights that are limited (when) the good of others ... would be adversely affected by those rights.”

Cooper issued an injunction barring the state Department of Education, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and the State Board of Education from enforcing DeSantis’ order.

“I am not granting an injunction against the governor of Florida. I am granting an injunction against the other defendants who are the ones primarily involved in enforcement actions,” Cooper said.

IN HIS OWN WORDS: Judge Cooper explains case law and his ruling

DeSantis has dismissed the masking recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as not applicable to Florida, but Cooper cited numerous Florida laws and statutes covering health care in nursing homes, prisons and elsewhere that say state decision-makers should give great weight to CDC guidelines.

Cooper only granted the plaintiffs’ challenge of the state’s enforcement powers and legal standing of the local districts but did not grant other claims, including that the state was not running a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system” of public schools based on previous court rulings.

After the ruling, the governor’s spokesman, Taryn Fenske, issued a statement.

The ruling also brought a quick reaction from DeSantis’ political opponents.

“Under his watch, classes and schools have been forced to close, over 3 million Floridians have gotten sick with COVID-19, our hard-fought economic comeback has been threatened, and our teachers, students, and parents have become collateral damage in his political crusade,” Charlie Crist wrote in a statement. Crist, a former governor and current U.S. congressman from the Tampa area, is running for the Democratic nomination for governor next year.

“Governor, it’s past time to walk away from this ridiculous, politically motivated fight and focus instead on working together to protect the people of Florida by encouraging scientifically-proven vaccines and mask guidelines,” said Secretary of Agriculture Nikki Fried, who is also running for Democratic nomination.

DeSantis’ July 30 executive order sought to bar districts from enacting mask mandates and triggered a state Department of Health rule that said any student mask requirements must allow parents to opt out.

State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the State Board of Education and the state Department of Education were also named as defendants in the lawsuit.

While Duval, Alachua, Broward, Hillsborough, Leon, Palm Beach, Sarasota, Duval and Miami-Dade have all imposed mandates that would appear to violate the state executive order, so far the Department of Education had only notified Alachua and Broward that there will be financial sanctions unless they changed their rules. Neither county has backed down from mask mandates that require a doctor’s note to opt out.

`We believe that the district is in compliance. We don’t believe that we have done anything inappropriate as it relates to the executive order and the rule of the Department of Education,’’ Rosalind Osgood, chairwoman of the Broward School Board, said Tuesday.

The highly contagious delta variant led to an acceleration in cases around Florida and record high hospitalizations just as schools prepared to reopen classrooms this month. By mid-August, more than 21,000 new cases were being added per day, compared with about 8,500 a month earlier. The state said 16,820 people were hospitalized on Tuesday, down from a record of more than 17,000 last week.

Agata Gardner, who has two children in Duval County schools, said she was pleased with the ruling, but a lot of damage has already been done.

“I do feel like, you know, unfortunately, it came too late. DeSantis did succeed in tying our district’s hands and making them feel like they couldn’t act when they felt like they needed to,” Gardner said. “So, you know, I’m relieved and excited for the possibilities that this opens up for other districts. I don’t think it’s going to make a difference for mine.”