As of Sept. 20, Florida has had a total of 3,503,976 COVID-19 cases and 51,884 COVID-19 related deaths, with a seven-day average of 7,227 cases and 376 deaths. Every county in Florida also qualifies as an “area of substantial or high transmission” of COVID-19 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is compounded by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ continued attempts since late July to repeal mask mandates. DeSantis’ efforts have faced resistance from several counties that have continued to vote in favor of mask mandates. Even so, DeSantis has responded to this resistance with threats to withhold funding from school districts that require masks. As this battle rages on and COVID-19 numbers continue to climb, here’s the latest on DeSantis’ efforts to ban mandatory masks and what he is doing to ensure compliance from Florida’s schools.
Wednesday, Sept. 8
On Sept. 8, Circuit Judge John Cooper of Leon County blocked DeSantis’ ban on mandatory masks in a temporary victory against the governor’s continued efforts. Cooper also threw out this same ban on Aug. 27, under the argument that DeSantis had “overreached his authority.”
While DeSantis has continued to cite the recently-enacted Parents’ Bill of Rights as reasoning behind his disapproval of mask mandates, Cooper noted that DeSantis’ ban clashed with CDC guidelines. Cooper also suggested that the bill does not support any action from the state on local school districts to “provide for the safety and health of students based on the unique facts on the ground in a particular county.”
This ruling also prevented salaries from being withheld from faculty and staff in schools that continued to require masks, which Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran had been notifying protesting counties of.
Friday, Sept. 10
Only two days later, an appeals court reinstated DeSantis’ ban after casting doubt on Cooper’s ability to repeal the decision. The judges that reinstated the ban were Stephanie Ray, Harvey Jay—who were both appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott—and Adam Tanenbaum, who was appointed by DeSantis.
Even so, various Florida schools continue to defy DeSantis. 13 counties still require masks in schools, with the only exception being if the student has a doctor’s note excusing them from wearing a mask due to a medical condition. It is not yet clear if the salary ban has been put back in place.
Attorney Charles Gallagher—who represents Florida parents that have challenged DeSantis—requested that the appeals court take this matter to the Florida Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education has sent a directive investigation letter to Corcoran into whether the Florida Department of Education is “preventing school districts [from] considering or meeting the needs of students with disabilities” who are more vulnerable to illness by allowing parents to opt their child out of following mask mandates.
President Joe Biden in particular expressed disappointment in DeSantis on Sept. 10, accusing him and other Republican governors of being “so cavalier with the health of these kids [and] with the health of their communities.”
Monday, Sept. 13
Three days later, DeSantis turned his attention towards vaccines. One week after Biden said he would impose vaccine mandates on federal employees, health care providers and businesses with 100 or more employees, DeSantis began threatening fines of up to $5,000 against Florida cities with vaccine mandates in place.
Reporter for politico.com Gary Fineout said that the press conference where DeSantis gave this announcement functioned more like a campaign rally, “with the audience cheering on the Republican governor as he lashed out at Biden for his ‘arrogance.’” Other members of the press conference included people more vocally against the COVID-19 vaccine, including, notably, a Gainesville citizen who falsely claimed that the vaccine can genetically alter anyone it is administered to.
At least three cities or counties are still requiring their workers to either be vaccinated or continue to get tested. Other counties are planning to impose disciplinary action against employees who are unvaccinated or do not submit test results, including possible termination.
Wednesday, Sept. 15
Gallagher’s request for DeSantis’ ban to be taken up with the state was granted, but on Sept. 15, Federal Judge K. Michael Moore rejected the request to block DeSantis’ efforts to prevent Florida schools from requiring masks. The lawsuit, filed in Miami, argues that DeSantis’ ban violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by putting children with disabilities in harm’s way and making them more susceptible to COVID-19.
Moore countered this by saying that the plaintiffs should have pursued administrative claims, which are required by law under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), before filing the lawsuit.
Friday, Sept. 17
Despite implementing bans on mask mandates and fining cities with vaccine mandates, DeSantis has pledged to combat COVID-19 in another way—by fighting to continue receiving distributions of monoclonal antibody (mAb) treatments from the federal government, a treatment applied to people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and which reduces the level of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in their system.
Florida has been receiving the most treatments out of any state, but this past week was capped at 27,850 doses by the Biden administration. However, DeSantis has expressed a commitment to fight for more doses and has proposed the possibility of receiving treatments directly from GlaxoSmithKline, a multinational pharmaceutical company.
The path forward from this point is uncertain—both in terms of what kind of progress DeSantis will make on bans for mandatory masks and vaccines, and for how Florida will either continue to be ravaged by or begin to recover from COVID-19. However, taking a step back and hearing the accounts of out-of-state New College students makes one thing clear: Florida does not need to be struggling with combating COVID-19 as much as it is.
First-year Rachael Low from California, near Sacramento, said that all public schools and government buildings in the area had mask mandates, and that the high school she attended now has a vaccine mandate in place.
“Some people and businesses in the area were resentful of the mask and vaccine mandates,” Low said. “However, overall the general attitude towards COVID-19 was more serious, and I did feel like the general population was more strict in adhering to public health protocols as compared with the people around Sarasota.”
First-year Riley Wood from suburban Denver, Colorado, attended two different schools throughout the 2020-2021 academic year. She was entirely online for the first school, and masks and temperature screenings were mandatory at the second school.
“It has been my observation that in Florida, people with negative views on vaccines, masks, social distancing and other COVID-19 prevention methods feel more empowered and are more aggressive about their beliefs,” Wood said. “On one of the first days I spent here I had someone driving past me yell out of their car about how masks were useless and we shouldn’t be wearing them. I never had an experience like this in Denver, possibly because COVID-19 deniers see themselves as the minority there. Even the family of anti-maskers I knew was quiet about it.”
First-year Katrine Bruner from Bloomington, Indiana, says that while Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb is more lenient on mask mandates, Mayor John Hamilton of Bloomington has kept up protocols, and that the majority of businesses either require or strongly recommend masks. Bruner also said that masks were strictly required at her high school for students attending classes in-person.
“The attitude [in Florida] is definitely very different,” Bruner said. “I feel like an outcast wearing a mask, like I’m doing something wrong. People look at me differently. I think in Florida it has become a huge political issue, unfortunately, and therefore it is causing even more issues and controversy than just an issue of health.”