Gov. DeSantis extends his ban on letting local leaders enforce COVID mask mandates

By: - November 27, 2020 1:21 pm

Gov. Ron DeSantis met with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in Washington on Nov. 17 to discuss distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines. Credit: HHS

Local government leaders will remain powerless to put teeth into their mask mandates against COVID-19 anytime soon — Gov. Ron DeSantis this week extended his ban on enforcement of these measures.

In an executive order Wednesay, DeSantis decreed that the ban would last — “unless otherwise modified or rescinded” — for the duration of the public health emergency that he declared in March, as coronavirus began to spread in Florida.

The order acknowledges that the state “continues to suffer economic harm as a result of COVID-19-related closures,” but adds that “Floridians should not be prohibited by local governments from working or operating a business.”

The administration made the move quietly, posting the executive order on the governor’s official webpage but not mentioning it in any press release or on his Twitter or Facebook accounts.

In fact, the governor last appeared before reporters on Nov. 4, the day following the election, and didn’t take questions. He’s appeared via video feed on a number of occasions since then, including on Nov. 19 detailing early plans to distribute COVID vaccines and on Wednesday with an update on vaccines and therapeutic advancements.

His isolation has nothing to do with any COVID infection, according to communications director Fred Piccolo, who has indicated DeSantis undergoes frequent viral testing and as of Friday was “COVID-free. Never been COVID-positive.”

When last updated, Florida Department of Health data showed 961,676 COVID infections in the state, with 54,133 hospitalizations and 18,254 deaths.

The governor allowed local authorities to penalize people who flouted local rules intended to prevent them from transmitting the virus until Sept. 25. That’s when he moved the state into Phase 3, the last step in his plan to open “nonessential” businesses he’d ordered closed earlier in the pandemic.

Pleas by mayors and county officials for greater authority have not availed.

“Our numbers are not getting better in this state —they’re getting worse. To not address it , to not speak out publicly and answer questions really does show a lack of concern, a lack of leadership,” Pt. Petersburg Mayor Kriseman told WTSP in Tampa Bay recently.

President-elect Joe Biden has urged all Americans to wear masks to protect people with whom they come into contact.

As the Florida Phoenix reported earlier this month, Florida is one of 16 states that don’t require their citizens to wear masks in public. Thirty-four states plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia impose mask mandates in all public places. (A subsequent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation put the number of states with general mask mandates at 13.)

DeSantis has indicated of late that he now thinks the shut-down of nonessential business including restaurants, bars, gyms, and movie theaters was a mistake. He has taken the counsel of medical experts, including Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist with no background in epidemiology or infectious diseases who nevertheless advises the Trump administration on COVID.

The theory, as DeSantis explained it, is that social restrictions unnecessarily hurt the economy and have caused a mental health crisis. Better, this thinking goes, to protect the vulnerable elderly and people with underlying medical conditions and leave the young, who DeSantis says tend to suffer few serious consequences from infection, to mingle as they wish.

As the governor said in September, “[E]veryone in Florida has a right to work. Everyone in Florida has a right to operate a business. Now, there can be reasonable regulations on that on a local level, but to say no at this point from a local perspective — you know, I don’t think that’s viable.”

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.