As COVID cases surge, FL Senate Dems call for state mask mandate, GOP rep sues to strike local mask ordinances

A nurse practitioner wears a medical-grade mask and a respirator to block transmission of coronavirus between her and her patients. Infectious disease experts say widespread use of face coverings, even non-medical grade masks, reduce transmission of coronavirus. Credit: Laura Cassels

Florida Senate Democrats called on Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis this week to require the use of face coverings in public statewide to curb the state’s surging pace of coronavirus infections.

On Thursday, the Florida Department of Health reported nearly 10,000 new confirmed infections overnight, bringing the total to 166,303 residents tested and confirmed infected and 3,607 deaths, most of them among people in their 60s and older.

DeSantis has said repeatedly, and recently reiterated, that he will not mandate mask use, leaving it to local governments and individuals to decide for themselves.

Also on Thursday, during a joint appearance with DeSantis in Tampa, Vice President Mike Pence ducked a reporter’s question about whether he would recommend wearing masks to vulnerable attendees at Republican National Convention events in Jacksonville next month. On June 29, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry mandated the wearing of face coverings in public, indoor places.

Pence said only: “We are excited about coming to Jacksonville. And I was in a meeting not long ago when I heard about some very sophisticated plans to make sure it’s a safe and healthy environment. Our job right now is to do everything in our power to support the efforts of your governor and the people of Florida to bring these numbers down.”

Municipalities including Miami-Dade County, Palm Beach County, Orange County, Leon County, Hillsborough County and St. Augustine have adopted mask mandates of various kinds, requiring at a minimum that masks be worn in public, indoor places, and in the case of Miami-Dade County’s new mandate in all public places indoors and outside.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Lake County Republican, is filing lawsuits against local governments that impose face-mask ordinances. According to his Facebook page, Sabatini is behind legal challenges against St. Augustine, Hillsborough County, Leon County and Orange County.

On his Facebook page, Sabatini describes local leaders who support mask mandates as “liberal mask-nazis.”

Senate Democrats say the widespread wearing of masks — as recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and top coronavirus experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci — is vital to curbing the surge in COVID-19 infections Florida has experienced since the state entered Phase 2 of DeSantis’ plan for reopening the economy.

They said face-covering requirements are just as appropriate for public well-being as speed limits on driving.

“Our caucus continues to be concerned about the dramatic rise in numbers of COVID-19,” said Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson from Jacksonville. “The governor hastily brought reopening plans that are now failing our economy as well as failing the care our residents deserve, so their health is in jeopardy as well.”

Gibson demanded the governor halt reopening plans until the state demonstrates a downward trajectory in daily infections for 14 consecutive days, as recommended by the CDC.

Sen. Gary Farmer of Broward County said hospitalization rates are rising so rapidly that Jackson Hospital in Miami-Dade and the South Broward District Hospital have returned to their peak-COVID policy of suspending elective procedures.

Farmer said Senate Democrats want a statewide face-covering mandate that grants medically based exceptions recommended by the Florida Department of Health and which is enforced by civil penalty only. Farmer said non-compliance should not constitute grounds for being stopped by police.

Opponents of mask mandates who commented on Sabatini’s Facebook page, some of whom describe themselves as “patriots,” praise him for fighting “communists” and “draconian, power-hungry politicians.”

A rare pushback comment on the page accused Sabatini of spreading disinformation about masks. The writer said she and her husband are health-care providers with young children who believe with certainty that face coverings slow the transmission of COVID-19.

“I will pray you and your family and supporters do not need medical assistance in the future because me, my family, and our medical community will not wish to take time away from our families to take [care] of such individuals who think our recommendations and beliefs are ‘NAZI’ related,” the writer posted.

Anti-maskers have insisted publicly that mask-wearing is dangerous, even potentially fatal, but health-care providers who wear masks routinely are trying to debunk that claim, saying few people suffer the kinds of respiratory problems that would make mask-wearing unsafe.

A doctor and infectious disease specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham told Huntsville TV station WZDX Wednesday that the university hospital had 84 COVID-19 patients in its care, a significant increase, and urged viewers to wear face masks in public. She dismissed claims that face coverings are dangerous for healthy people.

“We have surgeons that wear masks for over 12 hours in surgeries, and they’re completely healthy,” said Dr. Rachael Lee.

Deputy editor Michael Moline contributed to this report.