TALLAHASSEE —The president of the Florida Senate called the state’s surgeon general “unprofessional” this weekend for refusing to wear a mask while visiting the office of a state senator who is being treated for breast cancer — and he suggested that visitors in the future who “fail to respect these requests will be asked to leave.”
Senate President Wilton Simpson sent out the statement Saturday after Sen. Tina Polsky, a Boca Raton Democrat, asked Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo to put on a mask when he was visiting in her Capitol office last Wednesday. When Ladapo refused, she asked him to leave, Polsky told the Herald/Times on Sunday.
Polsky, 53, announced two days before that she had been diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. She had surgery on Sept. 27 and will begin radiation therapy this week.
After reading about the encounter, which was first reported in Florida Politics on Saturday, Simpson, a Trilby Republican, sent a note to his Senate colleagues suggesting that future behavior from the state’s top health officer will not be condoned.
“What occurred in Sen. Polsky’s office was unprofessional and will not be tolerated in the Senate,” Simpson wrote in a letter to all senators and Senate staff. “While there is no mask mandate in the Senate, senators and staff can request social distancing and masking within their own offices. If visitors to the Senate fail to respect these requests, they will be asked to leave.”
He added that “the prayers of the entire Senate family are with Sen. Polsky as she begins her treatment. However, it shouldn’t take a cancer diagnosis for people to respect each others’ level of comfort with social interactions during a pandemic.”
The Senate Democrats commended Simpson, who is running for agriculture commissioner, for his “leadership on this issue.”
The Democratic office said in a statement that Polsky met with Ladapo “in good faith with Floridian’s health in mind” and the surgeon general’s “carelessness could have led to a delay in treatment for the senator.”
After Ladapo refused to wear a mask, Polsky said Sunday that he “kept trying to negotiate and say we have other options.” He offered to move the meeting outdoors, but Polsky responded that she wanted to meet him in person in her office. “I told him, I’d like to conduct it here and if you wore a mask, we can go ahead,’’ she said. “He just wouldn’t do it.”
“This really went on a lot longer than it should — especially for those who weren’t wearing masks,’’ she recalled. “I said, ‘I guess I know everything I need to know about you. You can leave now’.”
She said Ladapo, who was accompanied by two aides, then left the office. As they were exiting, she said her aide heard Ladapo say: “Sometimes I try to reason with unreasonable people for fun.”
Polsky recalls that Ladapo was smiling throughout their encounter. “He was smug,’’ she said. “He wanted to engage me in this. And I wouldn’t engage and, unfortunately, I spoke to him too long. I should have asked him to leave a lot sooner. I was very shaken afterwards.”
Department of Health spokesperson Weesam Khoury said in an email Sunday that “the Department of Health is saddened to hear of Senator Polsky’s recent diagnosis, and wishes her well.”
“DOH will be addressing this directly with members of the Senate, rather than letting this play out publicly,’’ Khoury said. “While we weren’t aware of any specific Senate protocol, we will certainly ask members ahead of time and make necessary accommodations, such as meeting through Zoom or outdoors.”
She told Florida Politics on Saturday that Ladapo is committed to meeting with members of the Legislature “even when they do not agree on the subject at hand” and that the meetings “only get reported” when it “turns into a media headline expected from a gossip column.”
The incident is the latest controversy surrounding Ladapo, who was appointed by DeSantis to be the state’s surgeon general, replacing Scott Rivkees, whose contract with the Florida Department of Health ended in August.
During his brief time as surgeon general, Ladapo has questioned both the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, as well as the effectiveness of lockdowns and mask mandates.
At a press conference with the governor on Thursday, in which the governor called for a special session to punish businesses that require employees to be vaccinated, Ladapo cast doubt on the efficacy of the vaccines, which have proven largely effective at preventing the hospitalization and death from the virus.
“These vaccines are not preventing transmission,’’ he said. “So sure, they reduce the likelihood of transmission, and even that is sort of questionable depending on how far out you go.”
Last year, Ladapo was among thousands of medical professionals who signed a statement known as the Great Barrington Declaration which promoted the idea that herd immunity could be reached by allowing the less vulnerable people to be infected, while at the same time shielding the most vulnerable from the virus.
He also co-authored a report that endorsed the use of hydroxychloroquine for treating COVID-19. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration later withdrew emergency authorization for the anti-malaria drug, concluding that it led to heart problems and was not effective in treating COVID-19.
In a Sept. 16 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Ladapo criticized what he called “a zealous pursuit of public mask-wearing,” and argued that masks have had “at best, a modest effect on viral transmissions.”
That letter, and other public statements from Ladapo, as well as his vigorous opposition to schools requiring masks of students and staff, prompted more than 100 Florida physicians to sign a letter challenging him. The organization, the Committee to Protect Health Care, includes doctors are from all over the state, including three members of the faculty at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine, where Ladapo was offered a tenured professorship as part of his state employment contract that will pay him $512,000 a year.
The surgeon general must be confirmed by the Florida Senate, which will hold confirmation hearings on Ladapo during the 60-day regular session that begins on Jan. 11.
Polsky, a freshman Democrat who is a lawyer with degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, said her decision to come forward with the Ladapo exchange has brought national media attention “and all the trolls.”
She said she has been flooded with both well wishes and hateful comments. Her district office this weekend received a vulgar, antisemitic message on their answering machine following the stories.
“I didn’t ask for this attention,’’ said Polsky, who said she is focused on trying to continue representing her district and meeting with people while managing her cancer treatment. “I can’t be scared and back away. It’s too important a story,’’ she said.
But she added, Ladapo’s behavior “just goes along with everything else that this administration is doing. I don’t want to see this man as surgeon general. Think about the next public health crisis that’s not COVID. What’s he going to do to protect us?”
Polsky is the second high profile Florida woman to come forward with her breast cancer diagnosis in the last month. DeSantis’ wife, Casey DeSantis, announced she is also being treated for the disease.
In her statement on Friday, Polsky said “the prognosis is very positive, and I know I am in excellent hands and am receiving nothing but the best care from my oncology team at the Lynn Cancer Center at the Boca Regional Hospital. I do however anticipate missing some committee weeks (undetermined at this time) and fully expect to be back at 100% for the beginning of the legislative session in January.”
Mary Ellen Klas is the state Capitol bureau chief for the Miami Herald, where she covers government and politics and focuses on investigative and accountability reporting. You can reach her at email@example.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.