A Florida judge has ruled that schools in the state can impose mask mandates, arguing that Governor Ron DeSantis’ order banning them is unconstitutional. The Florida governor’s July order gave parents the right to choose whether their children wear a mask while in school but it faced pushback in some school districts. On Friday, Leon County Judge John Cooper said that the order “is without legal authority”. The issue of mask mandates in schools has caused fierce debates across the United States just as the new academic year begins.
At least 10 Florida school districts defied Mr DeSantis’ order by mandating that staff and students wear masks. These included its largest school district, Miami-Dade County, and Leon County, which includes the state capital of Tallahassee. In court on Friday, Mr Cooper said that while Mr DeSantis had argued that Florida law gives parents authority over their children’s health matters, it doesn’t extend to “reasonable” government public health actions. The judge also cited historical Florida Supreme Court cases that found that individual rights are limited when they have an impact on others.
“We don’t have a right to go into a crowded theatre and yell fire because we decided it’s our right to do that,” the judge said.
Covid-19 cases have surged in Florida due to the highly contagious Delta variant, with more deaths and hospitalisations reported that at any other point in the pandemic. On Thursday, Florida reported more than 21,765 Covid-19 cases and 901 deaths, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The death toll is the largest single-day increase since the pandemic began last year. Florida now also accounts for approximately 20% of all paediatric Covid-19 cases in the US.
The court’s decision means that Florida’s Department of Education cannot act against school districts that do not comply with the order. In a statement sent to the BBC, a spokesperson for the governor said that the state plans to immediately appeal. “The ruling was made with incoherent justifications, not based in science and facts – frankly not even remotely focused on the merits of the case presented,” the statement added. At least eight states, including Florida and Texas, have attempted to impose limits on school mask mandates and most are now facing legal battles. On Thursday the Texas Supreme Court blocked San Antonio and Bexar County from requiring masks in local public schools.