TALLAHASSEE — Dr. Scott Rivkees, who oversaw the Florida Department of Health during the coronavirus pandemic, will depart state government next month.
Taryn Fenske, a spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis, said in a statement that the governor enlisted Rivkees’s help as long as the law allowed.
“We thank him for his meaningful work during the most trying pandemic in our lifetime and we wish him all the success!” Fenske said.
In June 2019, Rivkees was appointed to his post as a part of an employee interchange agreement with the University of Florida — where Rivkees is also employed, Fenske said. DeSantis extended the appointment an extra three months, as is allowed by law. Rivkees’ departure, first reported by Florida Politics, will be Sept. 20, 2021.
Florida law limits the length of an employee interchange agreement to two years. However, a different section of state law also says the surgeon general serves at the pleasure of the governor.
“It has been an honor to serve the people of Florida the past two years. The Florida Department of Health is an agency with 12,000 dedicated and passionate public health experts that have responded to this pandemic for more than 500 days,” Rivkees said in a statement. “I’d like to thank Governor DeSantis for the opportunity to serve Floridians in this incredibly vital role.”
While he was surgeon general, the state paid UF $140,000 per year in quarterly installments of $35,000 to cover his salary.
Rivkees has not been a major part of the DeSantis administration’s public pandemic messaging efforts since the early days of the outbreak last year. Last April, he was abruptly removed from a news conference after suggesting that Floridians could be forced to socially distance for as long as one year. He’s only appeared in public a handful of times since.
One of those times was an appearance at the Florida Senate in April, at which lawmakers from both parties lauded Rivkees for his agency’s pandemic response.
More recently, Rivkees, a pediatrician, has been notably absent from the controversy over his agency’s guidance on masks in schools. An emergency rule signed by Rivkees says parents should have the option in masking their children. The rule was issued in response to an executive order issued by DeSantis.
At this week’s trial in Tallahassee where the state was forced to defend that rule, Florida attorneys didn’t call on Rivkees to explain the rationale behind the order. Instead, they relied on an out-of-state medical expert, Stanford University professor Jay Bhattacharya, who testified he has been an “informal advisor” to the governor since last September. On Friday, a Leon County circuit judge ruled that state officials can’t restrict school districts from requiring masks.
When he testified in a court hearing over mask mandates, Florida K-12 Chancellor Jacob Oliva on Wednesday said he had “great faith” in Rivkees. He said that when it came to the pandemic and mitigation efforts in schools, the Florida Department of Education relied upon Rivkees and his guidance.
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“He’s done a fantastic job giving us guidance, and that is who I am going to rely on giving us that expertise and guidance moving forward,” Oliva said.