ORLANDO, Fla. — A judge again ruled against the DeSantis administration Wednesday in an ongoing face mask case, deciding the state cannot ban school districts from imposing mask mandates while it appeals his earlier ruling.
Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled Aug. 27 that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on school mask mandates was unconstitutional and a violation of Florida’s new Parent’s Bill of Rights. He ordered the state not to take action against districts with mask mandates.
But the state quickly appealed and was granted an automatic stay typically provided to the government in such lawsuits. The lawyers for the parents who sued DeSantis and other state leaders then asked the judge to lift the stay, arguing children faced the “very real prospect of irreparable harm,” if school districts could not enforce mask mandates.
Cooper on Wednesday listened to arguments from both sides and then ruled in favor of the parents.
Florida is in a pandemic, he said. “There’s no dispute about that,” Cooper added. “We have a variant that is more infectious and more dangerous to children than the one we had last year.”
Many students are too young for a COVID-19 vaccine and so have “no way to avoid this but to stay home and isolate themselves and I think everybody agrees that’s not good for them,” he said.
School districts with mask mandates that include medical exemptions followed the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he noted, which “are in fact the gold standard.”
The state said schools can require face masks as long as parents can opt-out their children. That is the policy Seminole County Public Schools adopted, for example.
But 13 districts have mandates that exempt children only with a note from certain medical professionals.
Those district’s mandates would not cause any “meaningful harm” and so should be allowed to remain while the state challenges Cooper’s ruling, the judge said.
That was the argument of the parents’ attorney, Charles Gallagher. He said ending mask mandates would lead to “more sick and dead children” and “places all students, teachers, parents and staff in harm’s way.”
But Michael Abel, the state’s attorney, said the governor was likely to win the case on appeal and, based on previous court decisions, should be granted the stay as the case proceeds. He also challenged the notion that students would be harmed.
“That rhetoric is unhelpful and irresponsible,” Abel said. “They haven’t shown irreparable harm.”
Taryn Fenske, a DeSantis’ spokesperson, wrote on Twitter that the state would appeal Cooper’s latest ruling immediately. “Today we plan to file our emergency motion to reinstate the stay, and we anticipate the appellate court will rule quickly,” she wrote.
DeSantis expects to win just as he did last year when Florida’s teachers union sued him over his school reopening order, Fenske said. The union initially won in circuit court but the governor won when the case reached Florida’s First District Court of Appeal, where the face mask mandate case will be heard, too.
During his ruling Wednesday, Cooper noted he previously decided cases for former Gov. Jeb Bush and former Gov. Rick Scott. “If you look at my record, it’s not somebody who runs all over the place and rules against the governor,” he said.