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State News

Florida's New Surgeon General Establishes Himself Firmly In Team DeSantis

A man in a dark suit with red tie speaks passionately at a podium
Wilfredo Lee/AP
/
AP
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference, Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, at the Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. DeSantis was there to promote the use of monoclonal antibody treatments for those infected with COVID-19.

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 Declaration 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 Governor Ron 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 district’s 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 parents ONLY have the right to opt-out of masking, and they also have a right to decide whether to keep their kids home. 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. Among them, Leon County Schools—home to the state capitol, where Superintendent Rocky Hanna says he and other districts are planning to refile their lawsuit. Hanna also took a swipe at Ladapo.

“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.”

Ladapo replaced former Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, who resigned. The districts had tried to depose Rivkees but were blocked from doing so by a judge.

There are more than a dozen school districts with some form of a mandatory mask policy. There are also now 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 kids of their federally protected rights. Matthew Dietz is an attorney representing families of disabled kids in that lawsuit. And he notes 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 has 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 County School Board members who approved the district's mask mandate.

The federal government has now stepped in, announcing it has given Alachua nearly $150-thousand to pay those salaries. The state board of education next week is expected to hear a report on the other districts that are violating DeSantis' executive order.