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Local governments in Florida debate mask mandates

The debate is on among some local governments and school boards about whether to bring back mask mandates and possibly impose vaccine mandates.
The debate is on among some local governments and school boards about whether to bring back mask mandates and possibly impose vaccine mandates.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The debate is on among some local governments and school boards about whether to bring back mask mandates and possibly impose vaccine mandates.

On Wednesday night, the Broward County School Board voted for a mask mandate to come back during the upcoming school year.

Other local municipalities are also looking to impose mask mandates in some fashion. Two Florida mayors just announced mandates for masks and vaccines. In Miami-Dade, masks will be required at indoor facilities.

In Orange County, the mayor is requiring 4,200 non-union county employees to have their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of August. The second shot has to be given by the end of September.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he will fight any government requirement for the public to be masked or vaccinated. The governor’s office sent a statement (in full at end of article) that reads in part:

“The school mask mandate in Broward is a separate issue that will be addressed; as you know, the governor hinted last week that the legislature would have a special session to ensure that all Florida school districts are mask optional, so that parents can decide what is best for their own kids.”

Now the question is, if there’s a legal fight, who wins? Local governments and school boards, or the governor?

News4Jax spoke with Benjamin Priester, a law professor. He said the law in the Florida Constitution is on the side of DeSantis, who said he would be willing to call a special session of the legislature if a school board imposed a mask mandate.

“When the state legislature passes a law and the governor signs it and it becomes enacted into Florida statute, that would supersede any municipal or local ordinance or policy to the contrary,” Priester said.

But Priester said local governments or school boards could have a chance to fight this in court if any law signed by DeSantis was written incorrectly. Priester added that either way, lawsuits can be expected. That includes the governor possibly asking the attorney general to intervene, school boards suing the governor or parents suing school boards concerning their mask policies. He said it could be difficult for cities or school boards to sue the governor because they have limited financial resources.

Priester added that this is a state law issue and the federal government would not be able to intervene legally in any potential legal challenges.

The other part of this story is political. There are real political implications for how DeSantis handles this divisive issue. Right now, one of his potential competitors during his re-election in 2022 is Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. She tweeted this:

“It’s crucial that mayors like @MayorDaniella& @OCFLMayor, have the ability to protect their constituents and local economies. They’re governing closest to the people — and I have their backs.”

News4jax political analyst Rick Mullaney said DeSantis has been hailed for his handling of the pandemic this past spring, but the delta variant is adding a new hurdle for DeSantis’ leadership.

“The rise in the delta variant is risky to him and it’s being used by Democrats against him,” said Mullaney.

There’s another political reality for DeSantis if he chooses to run for president in 2024. Much of the GOP base opposes masking requirements in schools. Mullaney said he does not expect DeSantis to backtrack on his masking stance but will continue to encourage Floridians to get the vaccine.

“I don’t think you’re going to see the governor backpedal when it comes to how he approaches public schools in the state of Florida. I do believe you’re going to see him be very consistent,” said Mullaney.

Below is the full statement from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office.

“Mayor Demings acknowledged at his presser yesterday that the county doesn’t have the authority under state law to enforce COVID mandates with fines or penalties. Therefore, I’m not sure that “mandate” is an accurate description for the new local guidance in Orange County. In practice, it appears that the Mayor is making a recommendation and asking for voluntary compliance, which is not the same thing as a mandate. It’s not clear that the other counties will attempt to fine or otherwise penalize people who violate local masking guidance, but recommendations don’t run afoul of state law.”

“From Mayor Demings’ response to a reporter yesterday: “For quite some time we had voluntary recommendations in place here within orange county, and we saw better than 95% of our businesses comply. That last group we incentivize the compliance by deploying strike teams and imposing fines and penalties that ultimately was invalidated by the governor. So we find ourselves here at the crossroads where, because we are here in the state of Florida and the Florida legislature passed certain laws that significantly restrict the ability of local governments to issue mandates. We find ourselves in this position today. So I have consulted with our legal team. Who’s researched the current state of the law here within Florida. And because of that I’m taking the action that I believe that is legally defensible today and a measure approach based upon this community that I know the best when we have pleaded with them to follow of the recommendations that we have put in place they have done so.”

“Mayor Demings implied that voluntary action is just as effective, if not more so, than government mandates – which is not inconsistent with Governor DeSantis’ position. The Governor believes in conveying accurate information to the public, making decisions based on empirical evidence, and trusting citizens to decide what is best for themselves and their families. It is not the role of any level of government – local, state, or federal – to micromanage individuals’ decisions or fine people for declining to wear a face covering.

“Regarding other counties, such as Miami-Dade: We’re waiting to see if those local authorities are actually imposing mandates, in the sense that they will attempt to fine or press charges against people who violate mask guidance, or if they are making recommendations for voluntary compliance in the same manner that Mayor Demings did. Unless I missed something, Mayor Levine-Cava hasn’t said that Miami-Dade County will fine or charge individuals or businesses for COVID violations.

“The school mask mandate in Broward is a separate issue that will be addressed; as you know, the governor hinted last week that the legislature would have a special session to ensure that all Florida school districts are mask optional, so that parents can decide what is best for their own kids.

“Regarding vaccine mandates, we are not aware of any local authorities that intend to mandate vaccines for the general public. That would be a clear violation of individual rights. Governor DeSantis stands for individuals’ rights to medical privacy and opposes discrimination in all its forms. The provision that public employees in certain jurisdictions are required to get the vaccine or be fired, is coercive and appears discriminatory on its face. There are medical, religious, and personal reasons why someone would choose not to get vaccinated, and the vaccines are still under EUA. I would presume that any such “mandate” would have to include exemptions for people who cannot get the vaccines for health, religious and other reasons. I do not have a statement beyond that at this time but will update you after our legal team has reviewed this issue.”


About the Author:

Specializes in Clay County issues, general assignment reporting and stories off the beaten path and anchors weekend evening newscasts.