When school districts across the state of Florida started defying Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order on mask requirements, the Republican administration pushed back in a specific way: The law is the law, local officials were told, and it’s not optional.
It was school districts’ legal responsibility to follow the governor’s policy — even if they disagreed with it, even if it put children at risk during a pandemic, even if mask protections are a simple and effective way to help stop the spread of a dangerous virus.
Today, as NBC News reported, that argument collapsed.
A Florida judge on Friday knocked down the state’s order banning local school boards from implementing mask mandates, saying the sweeping action from Tallahassee doesn’t “pass constitutional muster.” Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper’s decision followed a four-day trial, which was held online as the state struggles to contain the spread of Covid-19.
According to the state judge, if communities have a “compelling state interest” and a “narrowly tailored” plan of action, they have the authority to create their own safety policies — whether the governor likes it or not.
Given that the DeSantis administration has spent weeks threatening school districts, including making plans to block local officials’ paychecks, the ruling was a dramatic setback.
It is unlikely, however, to be the final word on the subject: the governor’s lawyers said this afternoon that today’s decision will be appealed.
In the meantime, if it sounds like Florida’s GOP chief executive is on a losing streak, it’s not your imagination. This week, COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and fatalities in the Sunshine State reached an all-time high. The governor also learned this week that one of the state’s largest and highest-profile businesses intends to defy DeSantis’ policy on mask protections, just as 10 school districts had already done.
Also this week, a Quinnipiac poll found most Floridians believe the governor has the wrong approach to the crisis on a range of issues related to the pandemic.
It was against this backdrop that DeSantis appeared on Fox News to complain that President Joe Biden had not yet ended the public-health crisis. The governor did not appear to be kidding, though his comments were definitely a joke.