New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)

Judge blocks Florida order banning mask mandates.


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Florida school districts can require their students to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a judge ruled Friday, saying Gov. Ron DeSantis oversteppe­d his authority when he issued an executive order banning such mandates.

Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper agreed with a group of parents who claimed in a lawsuit that DeSantis’ order is unconstitu­tional and cannot be enforced. The governor’s order gave parents the sole right to decide if their child wears a mask at school.

Cooper said DeSantis’ order “is without legal authority.”

His decision came after a three-day virtual hearing, and after 10 Florida school boards voted to defy DeSantis and impose mask requiremen­ts with no parental opt-out. Districts that have done so include Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonvil­le, West Palm Beach and others. Cooper’s ruling will not go into effect until it is put into writing, which the judge asked the parents’ lawyers to complete by Monday.

Cooper said that while the governor and others have argued that a new Florida law gives parents the ultimate authority to oversee health issues for their children, it also exempts government actions that are needed to protect public health and are reasonable and limited in scope. He said a school district’s decision to require student masking to prevent the spread of the virus falls within that exemption.

The judge also noted that two Florida Supreme Court decisions from 1914 and 1939 found that individual rights are limited by their impact on the rights of others. For example, he said, adults have the right to drink alcohol but not to drive drunk, because that endangers others. There is a right to free speech, but not to harass or threaten others or yell “fire” in a crowded theater, he said.

In that same vein, he said, school boards can reasonably argue that maskless students endanger the health of other students and teachers.

The governor’s office said Friday that Cooper’s decision wasn’t based on the law and the state will appeal it.

“It’s not surprising that Judge Cooper would rule against parents’ rights and their ability to make the best educationa­l and medical decisions for their family, but instead rule in favor of elected politician­s,” spokeswoma­n Taryn Fenske said in a statement. “This ruling was made with incoherent justificat­ions, not based in science and facts — frankly not even remotely focused on the merits of the case presented.”

Craig Whisenhunt, one of the attorneys representi­ng the parents, called DeSantis’ actions in the case “atrocious” and called him “a bully in the room that is beating up children.”

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