Dr. Joseph Ladapo is shown with Gov. Ron DeSantis on Sept. 21, 2021. Credit: Michael Moline
Democrats clamored on Monday for Gov. Ron DeSantis to withdraw his nomination of Joseph Ladapo as Florida’s top public health official in light of his refusal to don a face mask while meeting with a state senator whose immune system may have been compromised by cancer treatments.
The governor’s office wasn’t saying much about the episode in Sen. Tina Polsky’s Capitol office last week, but even Senate President Wilton Simpson — a Republican, like DeSantis — condemned Ladapo’s behavior as “unprofessional.”
Ladapo’s nomination for surgeon general and leader of the Florida Department of Health requires Senate confirmation. Leading Democrats agreed he doesn’t deserve it.
“This man is not fit to serve as surgeon general. He certainly didn’t care about my health, so I don’t know how he’s going to care about the public health of 21 million Floridians,” Polsky said during an MSNBC interview Monday.
“Unbelievably irresponsible and cruel. He has absolutely no business in his position,” Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried said on Twitter. She’s seeking the Democratic nomination to run against DeSantis next year.
“Ladapo should not be confirmed as surgeon general. Pass it on,” U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, also seeking the Democratic nomination, tweeted.
Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book denounced Ladapo on Twitter.
“The surgeon general’s job is to protect the health & safety of all Floridians — yet when @TinaPolsky recently diagnosed w breast cancer — asked him to don a mask to protect HER health & safety, he refused. This is unacceptable,” Book wrote.
Polsky “has a right to be safe @ work, as all Floridians do. The surgeon general’s actions call into serious question his ability to advise our state on public health policy (as well as his ability to simply be a decent, compassionate human being),” Book added.
Notably, First Lady Casey DeSantis also is being treated for breast cancer.
News of the meeting first broke over the weekend on the Florida Politics news site.
On Monday, the governor’s press office referred questions to the state Department of Health. Weesam Khoury, a spokeswoman for the department, issued a brief response that suggested Ladapo has no intention of following mask protocols.
“The Department of Health is saddened to hear of Sen. Polsky’s recent diagnosis, and wishes her well,” she wrote.
“DOH will be addressing this directly with members of the Senate, rather than letting this play out publicly. While we weren’t aware of any specific Senate protocol, we will certainly ask members ahead of time and make necessary accommodations, such as meeting through Zoom or outdoors.”
Ladapo, whose take on COVID mitigation matches DeSantis’ own, but not the majority of public health experts — he has cast doubt on the efficacy of face masks and vaccinations in curbing coronavirus transmission — can serve for up to two years without Senate confirmation.
Senate President Simpson issued a memorandum to members of the Senate and its staff over the weekend noting the exchange between Ladapo and Polsky.
“This incident is even more disappointing given the health challenges Sen. Polsky is currently facing,” Simpson wrote.
“What occurred in Sen. Polsky’s office was unprofessional and will not be tolerated in the Senate. While there is no mask mandate in the Senate, senators and staff can request social distancing and making within their own offices. If visitors to the Senate fail to respect these requests, they will be asked to leave,” he continued.
“The Florida Senate has a long history of respect and camaraderie, and I expect that tradition to continue during my administration.”
Polsky said during her TV interview that she maintains a strict masking policy in her Senate office, complete with signs notifying visitors of that fact. This was the first time anyone refused to comply, she said.
“I asked them multiple times and they just wouldn’t do it,” she said of Ladapo and two aides who accompanied him on Wednesday.
“He didn’t give me a direct reason why he wouldn’t wear a mask. He kept trying to negotiate with me, offer alternatives such as going outside, and he wanted to debate the issue with me. But here we were, standing in the waiting room of my office, which is also small, basically having a meeting when they weren’t wearing masks, having a meeting about the meeting,” Polsky said.
“There was a lot of back and forth. Unfortunately, it went on longer than it should have. I said, ‘Is there a particular reason you can’t wear a mask?’ And he didn’t answer that.”
Polksy hadn’t mentioned her diagnosis publicly before but told Ladapo she suffered a serious medical condition. “And, again, he just refused to do it,” she said.
Finally, she told him: “I know all I need to know. Please leave.”
Ladapo did win support from Anthony Sabatini, the performative conservative Republican House member from Lake County.
“SHAME on Simping Senator @WiltonSimpson for taking sides with leftist nutjob @TinaPolsky against our great pro-freedom Florida surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo! Pro-Tip for you Wilton: Don’t attack our governor’s appointees to simp for radical Leftists!” Sabatini wrote on Twitter.
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