Florida Judge Defies DeSantis Appeal, Allowing School Mask Rules
(Bloomberg) -- Florida schools can start legally requiring masks, a state court judge ordered in what he called an uncommon ruling, even as Republican Governor Ron DeSantis appeals a decision against his ban on mask mandates.
It’s highly unusual to lift an automatic hold on a decision such as the one that kicked in when DeSantis filed his appeal, Leon County Circuit Court Judge John C. Cooper said at a hearing held over Zoom on Wednesday.
But “we’re not in normal times -- we’re in a pandemic,” he said. “We have children who can’t be protected by a vaccination.”
Whether to require masks at school amid a surge of coronavirus cases has become an explosive political issue across the U.S. Republicans opposed to mask rules say it should be a matter of personal choice rather than a government requirement. Similar court fights are underway in several other states, including Texas and Oklahoma. DeSantis, 42, is seen as a possible presidential contender in 2024.
Cooper ruled last month in favor of parents who challenged the governor’s ban. The state’s appeal of his decision then triggered the automatic stay. On Wednesday Cooper vacated that stay, allowing schools to issue and enforce mask mandates without fear of penalties such as withholding funds.
Charles Gallagher, a lawyer for the parents, argued in Wednesday’s hearing that failing to vacate the stay would pose an “unnecessary risk” to children and could even be fatal. Michael Abel, a lawyer for the state, told the court he believed Florida would prevail in its appeal and that kids could still wear masks in the meantime without facing irreparable harm.
“No surprise here that Judge Cooper concluded that he is unlikely to be overruled on appeal. We (unsurprisingly) disagree,” Taryn Fenske, the governor’s communications director, said in a statement. “Today we plan to file our emergency motion to reinstate the stay, and we anticipate the appellate court will rule quickly.”
Also on Wednesday, a federal judge in Miami held a hearing in a case about whether Florida’s ban illegally breaches rights and protections for students with disabilities. Invoking the Americans with Disabilities Act, parents of the students are seeking a preliminary injunction against the ban. Given the outcome in the state case so far, the federal one may not have an immediate practical impact on Florida, but it will be closely followed for implications in the other battles.
An executive order DeSantis issued in late July set in motion a process under which the Florida Department of Health effectively barred blanket mask mandates in schools. The state argued that the ban was in keeping with its new Parents’ Bill of Rights, which DeSantis signed this year. The law gives mothers and fathers the last word on health care for their children.
The parents suing DeSantis in the state case said he had banned mask rules even as the delta variant of the virus was spreading in Florida far faster than a year ago, when students were required to wear masks. Many districts, including Florida’s largest, in Miami-Dade County, have already instituted such mandates in defiance of the state.
The case is McCarthy v. DeSantis, 2021-CA-001382, Florida’s Second Judicial Circuit Court (Tallahassee).
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