Florida's new surgeon general establishes himself firmly in Team DeSantis
As one of his first official acts, Dr. Joseph Ladapo signed off on a Department of Health rule change that effectively nullified mask mandate lawsuits filed by several school districts.
There is no mistaking where Dr. Joseph Ladapo stands when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic.
As one of his first official acts as Florida’s new surgeon general, Ladapo signed off on a Department of Health rule change that effectively nullified mask mandate lawsuits filed by several school districts.
In his introduction, Ladapo called Gov. Ron DeSantis’ informal advisor, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, “a great friend” and defended his signature on a document called The Great Barrington Declaration. The document advocates for a minimalist approach to addressing the pandemic, and opposes most public health safety protocols like masking and social distancing for everyone except the very vulnerable.
“We’re going to be very explicit about the differences between the science and our opinions," Ladapo told reporters during his introductory press conference.
"What’s been happening over the past year is that people have been taking the science and misrepresenting it. They’ve been using the science and it's been unclear about where the discussion about where the science ends and discussion about how you feel about the science and what you want people to do with the science, begins.”
During a hearing in one of the lawsuits over DeSantis’ efforts to ban mandatory mask policies in schools, Bhattacharya testified that he did not believe masking children to be an effective policy. And Ladapo, in his first press conference, made similar remarks.
“Just a perfect example of how glaringly we’ve ignored what public health really means is how we’ve just brazenly pulled children who need the structure of school … out of school. And we’ve done that … for kids with disabilities," he said.
A day after being introduced, Ladapo signed off on a rewrite on a Department of Health rule that’s being used to enforce DeSantis’ effort to ban mandatory school mask policies. Several districts argued that the original version of the rule did NOT prevent them from requiring medical excuses to opt-out — so the department rewrote the rule making it explicit that only parents have the right to opt out of masking and whether to quarantine their kids.
That position echoes DeSantis’ position on the issue.
“Keep these kids in school. If they’re sick, send them home, but healthy kids - they have a right to be in a classroom," DeSantis said.
The rule change led an administrative law judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by several districts that require medical opt-outs. That included Leon County, where schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna says he and other districts are planning to refile their lawsuit.
Hanna also took a swipe at Ladapo, who replaced Scott Rivkees, who resigned. The districts had tried to depose Rivkees but were blocked by a judge.
“So the surgeon general resigns. They replace one puppet surgeon general with another, recall the original emergency rule which throws our cases out of court, and replace it with a new and improved one,” Hanna said.
There are more than a dozen Florida districts with some form of a mandatory mask policy. There are also more than a dozen lawsuits over those policies — some for and some against —pending across state and federal courts.
One of those suits continues to target the issue of kids with disabilities — and it claims DeSantis’ effort to ban masks deprives disabled students of federally protected rights. Matthew Dietz, an attorney representing the families, notes that given the rule change the districts may need to change their strategy.
“What they need to do is say, 'We don’t care what happens regards to whether the governor had that power or not. We need to look at the rights of children who we are entrusted to care for.' ”
The lawsuits challenging DeSantis’ executive order appear to be in trouble. After early wins in a circuit court, an appeals court issued a stay on a ruling that would have stopped the state from penalizing districts that have mandates. The state has already frozen the pay of Alachua and Broward county school board members who approved their district's mask mandate.
The federal government has stepped in, announcing it has given Alachua nearly $150,000 and Broward about $420,000 to cover those salaries. The state Board of Education next week is expected to hear a report on the other districts that are violating the executive order.
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