Gov. DeSantis opposes masks in schools as COVID cases in the Sunshine State is on the rise

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose re-election campaign is selling koozies quoting him saying, “How the hell am I going to drink a beer with a mask on?” held a private meeting Monday with doctors to oppose mask mandates in public schools.

DeSantis said he fears that the federal government might try to force mask mandates in schools, saying children would suffer.

“Our view is that this should absolutely not be imposed. It should not be mandated. And I know our Legislature feels strongly about it,” said DeSantis. He predicted lawmakers would hold a special session “to be able to provide protections for parents and kids who just want to breathe freely and don’t want to be suffering under these masks during the school year.”

DeSantis didn’t invite media to the discussion, but his office provided a video and transcript of the meeting in the state Capitol. Florida accounted for a fifth of the nation’s new coronavirus infections last week, more than any other state, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

But DeSantis has been firmly opposed to lockdown restrictions, mask mandates and vaccine passports, signing a bill into law that prevents businesses to ask for proof of vaccination and local governments from imposing COVID restrictions.

As well as the koozie, which has an illustrated image of DeSantis raising a beer in toast, the governor’s campaign is selling T-shirts that say, “Don’t Fauci My Florida,” clearly mocking Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert and President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser.

DeSantis acknowledged during Monday’s meeting that YouTube removed video of a similar roundtable discussion he held earlier this year because panelists said there was no scientific justification to mask children in schools.

“So here we are full circle, still talking about that issue,” DeSantis said.

Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is hoping to unseat DeSantis in the 2022 election, noted that children are being infected by the virus

“No one wants our kids to spend the school day in masks, but children are vulnerable to this virus. Florida has seen 7,000 cases in kids under 12 in the past week, with a 15% positivity rate. Inconvenience cannot be confused for oppression — no one’s freedom is at stake, but their lives may be,” Fried said in a statement emailed by her campaign.

Meanwhile, the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers on Tuesday requested all state courts suspend in-person appearances for non-essential hearings and revert to virtual court sessions.

“We are extremely concerned about the uptick in positive coronavirus cases throughout the state,” said Jude Faccidomo, the association’s president.

The association’s request came the same day that the Miami-Dade courthouse issued an advisory that four people who had been in multiple courtrooms over the past two weeks tested positive for the virus.

Also, with COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations surging around Florida, the Orange County tax collector gave his employees a new directive: Get vaccinated by the end of August, or find a new job.

Tax Collector Scott Randolph said Monday that he had been considering the new policy for weeks, but spiking numbers pushed him into action, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

Randolph’s department has 316 employees in six offices who assist about 800,000 customers with property taxes, auto titles, and driver’s licenses.

“This variant’s getting bad. We have a responsibility to the employees to create a safe work environment and to the general public,” Randolph said. “We’re an agency that just can’t be closed.”

Randolph’s office is the second in Florida to require employees be vaccinated. In April, the tax collector in Palm Beach County imposed a similar rule.

Also on Monday, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said the region is in “crisis mode” and that he is exploring ways to help lower infections. The county is seeing about 1,000 new COVID-19 infections a day, officials said.

More than 61% of county residents have had at least one vaccination shot, and Demings urged unvaccinated residents to get theirs as soon as possible.

In neighboring Seminole County, officials said they’re unable to bring back any restrictions that were in place last year, including requiring businesses to follow safety-protocol guidelines recommended by the CDC.

“The state really tied everyone’s hands,” county spokesman Andy Wontor told the Sentinel.

Even so, the town of Palm Beach announced Monday it has reinstated its facial covering policy for everyone — including the vaccinated — inside town-owned buildings.

The National Academy for State Health Policy said lawmakers in several states have introduced legislation to prohibit businesses from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of work. But the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that employers could require workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as long as they did not violate the Americans with Disabilities and the Civil Rights acts.

“We’ve run it through the lawyers,” Randolph said of his vaccine requirement, which exempts employees with medical exceptions and those with “sincere religious” objections. “We’re very much on solid ground.”


AP writer Mike Schneider in Orlando contributed to this report.