Masks are dividing Florida’s Republican leaders as coronavirus outbreak spreads

Some have supported mask ordinances, some are suing to stop them and some are trashing them on TV.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis puts on his face mask as he walks out after a press conference at Tampa General Hospital on Monday, April 27, 2020 in Tampa.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis puts on his face mask as he walks out after a press conference at Tampa General Hospital on Monday, April 27, 2020 in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published June 29, 2020|Updated June 29, 2020

The record-setting pace of new coronavirus cases in Florida has been met with mixed signals from Republican leaders over how far to push Floridians to wear masks. Monday was an exposition in how a piece of cloth has vexed the party of freedom and personal responsibility.

In Jacksonville, Republican Mayor Lenny Curry made it mandatory to wear a mask in indoor public spaces as the city looks to contain the outbreak ahead of the August Republican National Convention. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican, ripped mask mandates during a Fox News interview and suggested leaders should “inform us (but) stop telling us what to do.” Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he won’t stand in the way of local rules regarding masks while simultaneously suggesting that policing facial-wear would “backfire.”

“We left it to the locals to make decisions about coercive measures or impose any kind of criminal penalties,” DeSantis said Monday. “We’re not going to do that statewide.”

Experts agree that masks can help stop transmission of the disease, and many Republican leaders are encouraging people to wear them, including DeSantis, Scott and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. After eschewing face wear early on, DeSantis and his aides are more frequently spotted wearing masks at public events. Rubio has donned a mask in his Twitter picture.

However, for many Republicans a mandate is a step too far. Leon County Republican Party Chairman Evan Power sued his county over a mask order earlier this month. State Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey in the Hills, joined Hillsborough County GOP chairman Jim Waurishuk outside the local courthouse Monday to announce a lawsuit against the county’s mask order.

“We have real concerns of governments overreaching during these periods of time that can hurt us in the future,” Power said. “It should be handled by local businesses. The government’s job is to educate people on the right thing to do, not force mandates down.”

The division among Florida Republicans can be traced to the confusing cues coming from President Donald Trump. His administration has officially recommended mask wearing for months, but the president himself is rarely spotted in public with a mask on and they were not required at his recent campaign rally in Tulsa. Trump recently ridiculed his November election foe, Democrat Joe Biden, for covering his face.

Trump also moved the Republican National Convention out of Charlotte after clashes with state and local leaders over safety measures related to the coronavirus, including whether attendees needed to wear masks. Now, the new host city, Jacksonville, is requiring people to wear face masks two months out from the convention. Curry, a former state party chairman, resisted the action for weeks but changed course on Monday amid rising fears and the convention fast approaching.

Whether that mandate lasts until the convention commences on Aug. 24 remains to be seen. It is also possible that city leaders carve out an exemption for attendees, though discussions on health precautions are fluid, RNC organizers said.

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“The event is still two months away, and we are planning to offer health precautions including but not limited to temperature checks, available (personal protective equipment), aggressive sanitizing protocols, and available COVID-19 testing,” convention spokesman Mike Reed said. We have a great working relationship with local leadership in Jacksonville and the state of Florida, and we will continue to coordinate with them in the months ahead.”

Florida on Monday reported 28 deaths from COVD-19 and 5,266 new cases, bringing the number of people infected in Florida to 146,341. However, half of those cases have come in the past two weeks and many Florida counties, including Hillsborough, Pinellas and Miami-Dade, have turned to mask mandates to help slow the spread, using emergency powers granted during this public health crisis. Even Martin County, nestled in the red part of Florida, required employers and workers to wear masks.

There’s overwhelming bipartisan support for face masks and most people have worn them without incident. In a recent statewide survey, 85 percent of respondents, including 78 percent of Republicans, told the pollster St. Pete Polls that they would wear masks when they go out in public.

But an active and vocal minority of residents who oppose face masks have garnered considerable attention. Angry citizens flooded a recent Palm Beach County Commission meeting to protest a new mask ordinance, sharing unfounded claims about adverse effects that went viral. A 11,000-member Facebook group once dedicated to reopening the state for business has turned into a forum for strategies to eschew face mask rules at businesses.

Florida Republicans face an uphill battle containing the outbreak as long as these sentiments are out there, leaders have acknowledged.

“We’re not done with this. We all have to take this seriously,” Scott told Fox News. “We’ve got to continue to talk about the importance of wearing masks and continue to talk about the importance of social distancing.”

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