DeSantis says masks should be voluntary

While calls to require residents to wear face masks grow louder amid rising COVID-19 cases, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis continues to maintain his position that mask-wearing should be voluntary. 

At a news conference in Miami Friday, DeSantis said people need to abide by local mask-wearing requirements. But that’s as far as the governor was willing to go, as he reiterated a position about personal freedoms.

“This has to be voluntarily because the Constitution is not suspended just because there is a virus,” DeSantis said. “You do have a right to protest, you have a right to go to religious service, all these other things.” 

The numbers of new COVID-19 cases reported daily by the state have been increasing by record amounts. The state Friday announced 3,822 new cases, making Florida a new national hotspot for the spread of the virus. 

The data released by the Department of Health show the state has had 89,748 COVID-19 cases and 3,104 deaths related to the virus. Florida has had 28,260 new COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks.

The governor has offered several explanations for the spike, including increased testing among high-risk people such as nursing home residents. He also said migrant workers and construction workers have been testing positive for COVID-19, in part, because of cramped living and working conditions. On Friday, he also repeatedly said that many of the positive test results involve younger adults, who are less prone to severe medical problems because of the virus.

The surge in cases, however, is the impetus behind moves by a number of local governments to mandate that residents wear masks. Residents in Orange County will be required to wear masks beginning Saturday. There are no fines for people who violate the policy. 

Tampa’s mayor ordered citizens to wear masks in public or face potential citations. In neighboring Pinellas County, workers who interact with the public also are now required to wear masks. Broward County residents who don’t wear facial coverings in public indoor spaces can face second-degree misdemeanors. Miami-Dade County has taken similar steps. And in the Florida Keys, the Monroe County Commission has required everyone to wear face coverings for the next year. 

The Florida Medical Association issued a statement Friday thanking local governments that have mandated face masks and calling on others to follow suit. The FMA is the largest physicians association in the state.

“The science is clear. Asymptomatic infected individuals can release infectious aerosol particles while breathing and speaking,” FMA President Ronald F. Giffler said in a prepared statement. “Not wearing a mask or face covering increases exposure, whereas universal masking greatly reduces the spread of viral particles. The message is simple: For the sake of your health and the health of everyone around you, Florida’s doctors want you to wear a mask.”

While DeSantis won’t mandate the use of masks, he has encouraged them --- as has state Surgeon General Scott Rivkees --- and said there would be public service announcements on masks in the coming weeks.