TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday pledged that there would be no mask mandates in schools or Covid-related lockdowns this fall even as the virus surges in the state and across the nation.
Florida has seen its cases explode in July, primarily among the unvaccinated, and hospitals are grappling with a wave of new admissions that have forced some major hospitals across the state to bring back visitation limits and cut back on elective surgeries. More than 8,000 people in Florida tested positive for coronavirus on Wednesday, and even the state’s attorney general announced this week that she has Covid despite being fully vaccinated.
Yet the Republican governor insisted that Florida would have a “normal school year” and that the state would resist any campaigns or push by federal authorities to put in place mask mandates for school children. The American Academy of Pediatricians earlier this week recommended that all students two or older and school staff wear masks.
“We’re not doing that in Florida. Ok? We need our kids to breathe,” said DeSantis during a press conference in Fort Pierce to acknowledge the signing of a bill that creates a statewide book distribution program. “Is it really healthy for them to be muzzled and having their breathing obstructed all day long in school? I don’t think it is.”
DeSantis comments marked yet another round in his confrontational stance against federal health authorities. The Republican governor, who is eyeing a 2024 presidential bid, has repeatedly touted his hands-off approach to Covid-19 that went against some of the recommendations of health authorities, but resulted in businesses remaining open and the state keeping down its mortality rate among its senior citizens, particularly in nursing homes. More than 38,000 Floridians have died since the start of the pandemic.
The recent increase in coronavirus cases, however, has many worried that the pandemic is far from over and that more needs to be done to convince unvaccinated people to get protected. And even those who are vaccinated have tested positive for Covid-19, including Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, who recently traveled with DeSantis to Texas, and Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), who announced earlier this week that he has the virus.
DeSantis on Thursday was so adamant that students not be required to wear masks that he said he has already talked to House Speaker Chris Sprowls about holding a special legislative session to counter any potential mandates imposed by federal authorities.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, when asked Thursday about DeSantis’ comments on mask mandates, replied: “If I were a parent in Florida, that would be greatly concerning to me.”
While DeSantis fought against imposing Covid-related restrictions in the state, the governor pushed ahead earlier this year with an aggressive vaccination campaign that specifically targeted older Floridians and included the creation of pop-up clinics to distribute doses. It appeared to work, as the state saw its new cases and number of deaths drop.
But Florida has seen the number of vaccinations steadily decline in recent weeks. In late May, the state reported that it was distributing more than 400,000 vaccine doses a week. It’s now down to slightly more than 224,000, according to the weekly report distributed last Friday by the Florida Department of Health.
About 48 percent of Florida’s population is fully vaccinated, which places the state 26th nationally among all 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 58 percent of all adults in Florida are fully vaccinated.
Florida imposed some lockdowns at the start of the pandemic, but quickly lifted them last summer and DeSantis pledged to never put them in place again. Florida never required a statewide mask mandate and instead left it up to local cities and counties. But the Florida Legislature passed a bill this spring that gives the governor veto power over local governments that impose restrictions related to public health emergencies, meaning that any new restrictions put in place by cities and counties could be quickly nixed.
Even as Covid-19 infections have soared recently, DeSantis said earlier this week he wasn’t worried about “case count” and he urged people to get vaccinated because it would prevent serious illness or death.
But a group of Florida doctors on Thursday called on DeSantis to stop his “victory lap” over his handling of Covid and end his attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the chief medical advisers to President Joe Biden.
“If DeSantis were as concerned about stopping Covid-19 spread as he was about coming up with these clever jabs at Dr. Fauci we might not be in this position,” said Dr. Bernard Ashby, a vascular cardiologist based in Miami and Florida State Lead for the Committee to Protect Health Care. “Doctors here feel like we are back at square one again.”
Dr. Frederick Southwick, an infectious disease expert in Gainesville who said he spent 10 days administering thousands of shots earlier this year, added “it’s past time for him to quit his act that Florida won the pandemic.”