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Florida judge says schools can continue to impose mask mandates

September 8, 2021, 5:14 PM UTC

Florida schools can start legally requiring masks, a state court judge ruled, even as Governor Ron DeSantis appeals an earlier decision invalidating his ban on mask mandates.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge John C. Cooper ruled last month in favor of parents who challenged the governor’s ban, and Florida appealed his decision, triggering an automatic hold on it. On Wednesday Cooper vacated that stay, allowing schools to issue and enforce mask mandates without fear of penalties such as withholding funds. 

It’s highly unusual to vacate an automatic stay, the judge said at a hearing held over Zoom. But “we’re not in normal times—we’re in a pandemic,” he said. “We have children who can’t be protected by a vaccination.”

Whether to require masks at school amid a surge of coronavirus cases has become an explosive political issue across the U.S. Republicans opposed to mask rules say it should be a matter of personal choice rather than a government requirement. Similar court fights are underway in several other states, including Texas and Oklahoma. In Florida itself a hearing is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon in a federal case involving schoolchildren with disabilities.

An executive order by DeSantis, a Republican and possible presidential contender in 2024, set in motion a process under which the Florida Department of Health effectively barred blanket mask mandates in schools. The state argued that the ban was in keeping with its new Parents’ Bill of Rights, which DeSantis signed this year. The law gives mothers and fathers the last word on health care for their children.

The parents suing DeSantis argued he banned mask rules even as the Delta variant of the virus was spreading in Florida far faster than a year ago, when students were required to wear masks. Many districts, including the state’s largest, in Miami-Dade County, have already instituted such mandates in defiance of the state.

The case is McCarthy v. DeSantis, 2021-CA-001382, Florida’s Second Judicial Circuit Court (Tallahassee).

—With assistance from Erik Larson.

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