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Florida Ban on Mask Mandates in Schools Temporarily Back in Place as Appeals Court Pauses Judge’s Ruling Against Gov. DeSantis

HOMESTEAD, FLORIDA - JUNE 14: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis looks on prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on June 14, 2020 in Homestead, Florida.

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.)

A Florida appellate court restored the state’s ban on mask mandates in schools on Friday, in a ruling pausing a trial judge’s order against Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

On Aug. 17, a judge in Leon County blocked the governor’s executive order banning the state’s largest school districts from enforcing a mask mandate.

Delivering a scathing ruling from the bench, Second Judicial Circuit Court of Florida Judge John Cooper found the measure “does not meet constitutional muster,” violated the state’s Parents’ Bill of Rights and cut against the “overwhelming” medical consensus on COVID-19.

“I have heard significant evidence concerning the medical and scientific basis for face-mask policies and I conclude that this evidence demonstrates that face mask policies that follow CDC guidance are at this point in time, reasonable and consistent with the best scientific and medical opinion and guidance in the country,” Judge Cooper added at the time.

Gov. DeSantis promised a quick appeal, and his spokeswoman predicted the judge’s decision would be overturned by a conservative First District.

Issuing an order staying Judge Cooper’s order pending appeal, a three-judge panel indicated they have “serious doubts” about the lower court’s ruling.

“Upon our review of the trial court’s final judgment and the operative pleadings, we have serious doubts about standing, jurisdiction, and other threshold matters,” First District Judges Stephanie W. Ray, Judge Harvey L. Jay III, and A. S. Tanenbaum wrote. “These doubts significantly militate against the likelihood of the appellees’ ultimate success in this appeal.”

All three jurists were appointed by Republican governors. Judges Ray and Jay were appointed by then-Gov. Rick Scott, and Tanenbaum was appointed by DeSantis.

The parents’ lawyer Craig A. Whisenhunt predicted an appeal would be imminent after his clients first won in the lower court following a trial.

“This case wasn’t about masks but about the unlawful overreach of the Governor into the decisions of local school boards to ensure the safety of students, staff, and their families,” Whisenhunt told Law&Crime in August. “The ruling ensures that those districts that reasonably believe masks to be necessary can mandate them with or without parent opt out provisions based upon the local circumstances. This was a huge win for our schools, our children, and the law.”

Asked about the subsequent setback, Whisenhunt called the development predictable but lamentable.

“I am not surprised by the decision of the 1st District which has a reputation for being very friendly to this Governor,” he told Law&Crime in a subsequent email. “It is nonetheless very disappointing that they would reinstate a stay when the overwhelming evidence of irreparable harm cannot be legitimately disagreed with. Judge Cooper’s ruling was well reasoned and well supported by the 1st DCA’s own ruling in the School Reopening Case last year.”

Whisenhunt predicted the appellate court would not have the final word.

“The practical reality is that this is ultimately not likely to be a matter resolved by the 1st District Court and we are confident that when ultimately presented to the Supreme Court of Florida the Plaintiffs will prevail in this case,” he continued. “The question now becomes simply how quickly this case will reach that ultimate review and how many more Floridians will suffer the consequences of a pandemic because of the unconstitutional actions and failure of leadership demonstrated by this administration.”

Perpetual fodder for the pandemic component of the culture wars, mask mandates in schools have come under attack across the country by conservative Republican governors. A similar measure put in place by Gov. Greg Abbott was blocked by a Texas judge last month, in a ruling allowing the Lone Star State’s largest county and several school districts to resume enforcing mask mandates.

Texas and Florida continue to suffer from rising COVID-19 infections during the spread of the delta variant, as both states surpassed New York in coronavirus deaths last month. Both are run by stalwart supporters of former President Donald Trump.

Read the First District order below:

[image via Michael Reaves/Getty Images]

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."