TALLAHASSEE — As Florida schools return to in-person learning next month and COVID-19 cases surge, Gov. Ron DeSantis doubled down on his opposition to mask requirements Thursday, suggesting he would be willing to call a special session of the Legislature to outlaw it if the federal government imposes a mandate or local school districts defy him.
“We look forward to this upcoming year to be a normal school year, be in person, and live like normal and learn like normal kids,” DeSantis said at a news conference at Indian River State College. “There’s been talk about potentially people advocating at the federal level, imposing compulsory masks on kids. We’re not doing that in Florida, okay? We need our kids to breathe. We need our kids to be able to be kids.”
The governor’s remarks immediately drew a rebuke from White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who said the comment “puts kids at risk.”
She acknowledged that the masks are “not the most comfortable thing” but said they are part of the public health guidance. “I will say my kids are quite adjusted to them, as I know many kids are,” Psaki said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday issued new COVID-19 guidelines for schools, recommending that students over age 2 wear masks this fall, even if they have been vaccinated. The group said that exceptions may be made for those with medical or developmental conditions. The new guidelines differ from the recommendation issued July 9 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends masking in schools only for unvaccinated people over age 2.
The group cited concerns about more transmissible virus variants and the possibility that if vaccination rates are low in a community, it could raise the risk of an outbreak at a school. The Academy of Pediatrics said that universal masking was recommended because it may be difficult to verify whether individual students or staff members have been vaccinated.
Parents should choose
DeSantis said he disagrees with those kinds of recommendations because, he said: “There’s not very much science behind” mask requirements in schools.
“There’s some schools [that] didn’t do masks, others did,’' he said. “The outcomes were not meaningfully different.”
The governor suggested it will be up to parents “to equip their kids to go to school however they want” and vowed the state “wouldn’t restrict that.”
Speaking at a news conference about a new reading initiative, DeSantis said that “as of now” there are no school districts planning to require unvaccinated students or faculty to wear masks. But if there is “a campaign from Washington to try to change that,” he has spoken to House Speaker Chris Sprowls and they agreed if they need to bring legislators back into special session “to do something from the legislative perspective, he’s all in to be able to do it.”
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“At the end of the day, we got to start putting our kids first,’' DeSantis said. “We got to look out for their education. Is it really comfortable? Is it really healthy for them to be muzzled and have their breathing obstructed all day long in school? I don’t think it is.”
In Tampa Bay, the Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando county school districts have said in recent weeks that masks will be optional for the 2021-22 academic year, which begins in early August. Some, such as the Pinellas district, will recommend masks for indoor use, but they will not insist. In some cases, staff will make masks available, using last year’s supplies.
As COVID-19 infections surged across the nation, eight states have banned mask mandates and nine states require them.
Doctors say masks work
Florida now accounts for one in five of all new COVID-19 cases in the U.S., but the governor on Monday dismissed concerns about the surge, calling the spike in cases a “seasonal” pattern and predicted that cases would start declining in August.
That conclusion is “incorrect,” said several Florida doctors with the Committee to Protect Health Care at a news conference on Thursday. They urged the governor to work harder to encourage his supporters to get vaccinated and promote masks and social distancing.
On the same day DeSantis called it a “seasonal” pattern, “UF Hospital in Jacksonville broke its record for the most COVID-19 patients ever hospitalized there,’' said Dr. Frederick Southwick, an infectious disease specialist in Gainesville and member of the Committee to Protect Health Care. “At UF Health in Gainesville and Jacksonville, we are now seeing patients hospitalized who are younger and sicker.”
He said that with the delta variant, which is nearly three times as infectious as the original strain and is “spreading like wildfire, threatening lives and threatening to once again overwhelm our hospitals,’' the state should reinstitute “infection control measures.”
Dr. Mona Mangat, an immunologist in St. Petersburg and board member for the Committee to Protect Health Care, said that “vaccines are highly effective against the much more contagious delta variant” but, she added: “We also knew that masks and social distancing were effective in preventing the spread of the virus, and DeSantis chose to largely ignore the science about these simple tools.”
The Legislature passed a law this year prohibiting local governments from mandating COVID precautions, and the governor has sued the CDC over its rule requiring cruises operating from Florida ports to adhere to certain COVID protocols. He also issued an order prohibiting Florida businesses from requiring customers to show proof that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
DeSantis said he would enforce the ban on local government mandates and emphasized that vaccines are a preferred way to prevent the virus.
“If anyone is calling for lockdowns, you’re not getting that done in Florida,’' he said. “I’m going to protect people’s livelihoods. I’m going to protect kids’ right to go to school. I’m going to protect people’s right to run their small businesses.
“We have a situation where you have three vaccines that have been widely available for months and months now, and people need to make decisions what’s best for them,’' he said. “But to have the government come in and lock anyone down or restrict anybody is totally unacceptable, and it’s easy for some physician to advocate that, because it doesn’t affect them.”
DeSantis was defensive about his decision to promote vaccinations on Wednesday in response to questions about the surge in COVID-19 cases in Florida.
“It’s interesting, you know, I had mentioned that favorable [vaccine] data and people were like, ‘Oh, it’s the first time he’s ever mentioned that,’” he said. “I’m like, ‘Were you asleep in December, January, February, March, when I was crisscrossing every corner of the state?’ I showed up at nursing homes. I showed up at hospitals. I showed up at senior communities. I showed up at pharmacies, and I was criticized for doing that by a lot of the people in the peanut gallery for whatever reason, bogus reasons.
“But nobody leaned into this because we have a very elderly population. And we wanted to be able to provide them access but at the same time, we’ve never had any mandates in the state of Florida and we will not have any mandates in the state of Florida.”
DeSantis also kept his focus on preventing death and hospitalization and steered away from any talk of the long-term consequences of COVID infections from people who survive it.
McClatchyDC reporter Alex Roarty contributed to this report.