FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis barred school districts Friday from forcing students to wear masks when classes resume next month even as the state’s coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to skyrocket toward levels not seen since before vaccines became widely available.
The Republican governor said parents should decide whether their child should be masked, saying he has seen no studies that show mask-wearing lowers the chance of outbreaks in schools.
“I have (three) young kids. My wife and I are not going to do the mask with the kids. We never have, we won’t. I want to see my kids smiling. I want them having fun,” DeSantis said at a press conference in southwest Florida a few hours before he signed the executive order. DeSantis is seeking re-election next year and has been positioning himself nationally for a possible 2024 presidential bid.
His decision comes after the Broward County school board this week voted to require masks and other districts and colleges around the state were considering it. The state’s confirmed coronavirus cases have grown nearly tenfold over the last month as the more contagious delta variant spreads. Florida is responsible for about 20% of the new cases reported nationwide over the last three weeks, even though it makes up 6.5% of the population.
On a per capita basis, Florida is now first in hospitalizations. While rare, pediatric hospitalizations for COVID-19 are also increasing statewide, studies show.
“If (DeSantis) makes an emergency rule and we are not legally allowed to mandate masks, then we will have to change our policy,” Broward board member Debbi Hixon told the South Florida SunSentinel. “I am not looking to defy the governor. I believe it is an irresponsible decision but if it is the law, I will agree to follow it.”
The Florida Education Association, the state’s teachers union, said DeSantis should leave the decision to local officials rather than impose a statewide edict — a position he once held. When the pandemic began in March 2020, DeSantis said local officials should control the response, that the business closures and mask mandates imposed in Miami, Tampa and other big cities wouldn’t work in small, rural counties.
“Gov. DeSantis continues to think that Tallahassee knows best what all Floridians need,” union President Andrew Spar said in a statement. “We reject that kind of thinking. Instead, we ask Gov. DeSantis to allow all Florida’s citizens to have a voice by empowering the elected leaders of cities, counties and school districts to make health and safety decisions locally.”
Meanwhile, Publix, the state’s largest supermarket chain, announced Friday that employees will again be required to wear masks and several hospitals said they are postponing elective surgeries and limiting visitors.
Florida likely recorded more than 100,000 new cases over the past week, about where it was in January just as vaccines became available, said Jason Salemi, a University of South Florida epidemiologist who has been tracking the pandemic since shortly after it began. In late June, the state’s recorded cases had fallen to about 10,000 new cases a week, a 90% drop that has been erased. The state health department will issue its official weekly report later Friday.
Salemi said pediatric hospital admissions for COVID-19 will likely reach 25 to 30 per day statewide in the coming week, up from an average of 23 last week. Pediatric hospitalizations have increased fourfold from a month ago.
The Florida Hospital Association says statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations are nearing last year’s peak. More than 9,300 patients were hospitalized Friday, up from 1,845 a month ago and nearing the record 10,179 set on July 23, 2020.
At Tampa General Hospital, the 90-plus patients currently hospitalized with COVID already exceeds the previous high of 86, said Dr. Seetha Lakshmi, medical director of its Global Emerging Diseases Institute. She said the hospital, like many, can’t hire enough staff and it is leaving those working exhausted.
“It feels like we are getting hit by a train, the pace is so fast and uncontrolled,” Laskshmi said. “I just don’t have any words anymore. This is awful, just awful and it is going to be awful.”
She said last year, her patients’ median age was in the 70s. Now, it is just over 50, with the younger patients getting sicker than in the past.
She pointed to a patient in his early 30s whose lungs “sound like velcro” being pulled apart. A father of young children, he will likely have permanent damage and might need a transplant eventually, she said.
She said 83% of Tampa General’s COVID patients are unvaccinated while the others have immune-deficiency issues that prevented the vaccine from working.
Johns Hopkins University says 282 Floridians have died over the last week from COVID, up from about 210 in the last week of June. Deaths are the last number to rise significantly in an outbreak as the disease can take a month or more to kill. More than 38,000 Floridians have died of COVID since March 2020. The state’s peak happened in mid-August 2020, when 1,266 people died over a seven-day period.
Gomez Licon reported from Miami.
Terry Spencer And Adriana Gomez Licon, The Associated Press