DeSantis lays groundwork to overturn local mask mandates, chides ‘lockdown’ states

Surrounded by doctors who have broken ranks with public health experts over how to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday continued to lay the groundwork to overturn local rules, particularly mask mandates.

The group, which DeSantis summoned in September shortly before he stripped local officials of their ability to keep businesses closed, scoffed at measures like school shutdowns, contract tracing and mask mandates.

Such tactics, they said during an hour-long discussion in the capitol, weren’t just unnecessary, but counterproductive and, in some cases, harmful

DeSantis, who steadfastly refused to enact a statewide mask mandate, needs legislative authority to strike down local face-covering laws, like those in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. But once a GOP-backed bill passes, he said such measures would be eliminated.

“We are having no lockdowns, no mandates in Florida,” he said during an afternoon press conference in Panama City. “People are able to make decisions on their own. They can understand what they want to do and what they don’t want to do.”

Further, he said, he won’t implement a COVID-19 passport that would require people to show proof they have been vaccinated before they can go to the theater, concerts or sporting events. If private companies try to do so, he said he would find a way to stop them.

“We’re going to look to see what we need to do to make sure we’re protecting Floridians,” he said.

While he encouraged state residents to get vaccinated, he scoffed at other states that are exploring vaccine passports, are keeping schools closed and see masks as a way to stop the spread of the disease.

“Lockdown states,” the Republican governor has labeled them, specifically calling out California, New York, New Jersey and others led by Democrats.

During the hour-long discussion, his hand-picked group of experts lauded his laissez-faire approach to the pandemic.

They contradicted and criticized recommendations by the federal Centers for Disease of Control and Prevention.

Contact tracing, which many health experts describe as the key to stopping the spread of the virus, simply doesn’t work, according to the group from prestigious universities, including Oxford, Stanford and Harvard.

“It’s counterproductive and reduces confidence in public health,” said Dr. Martin Kulldorff, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “People don’t want to provide information and they refuse to cooperate.”

Dr. Alina Alonso, director of Palm Beach County’s state-run health department, said when daily cases are multiplying rapidly, contact tracing is difficult. People often can’t say with certainty where they may have contracted the disease and who else they may have infected.

“But it is still useful because we can educate and get people to isolate and quarantine,” she said. “That’s our only weapon in stopping the spread.”

For people to avoid infection, their best defense is wearing masks and social distancing, she has said. She has repeatedly pleaded with people to continue to obey the guidelines.

However, those on DeSantis’ panel said masks are unnecessary.

“There was no evidence that a mask mandate was effective in stopping cases from spreading,” said Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist whose unconventional views caught the attention of President Donald Trump. “It’s become folklore, one of the many obsessions and, you know, it’s become harmful.”

The former member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force blasted then CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield for telling a Congressional committee in September that masks may offer more protection against COVID-19 than a vaccine.

“It was extraordinarily reckless, inappropriate and it endangered people,” Atlas said.

Under pressure from Trump, Redfield clarified that absent a vaccine, then only a hope, wearing masks was crucial to curbing the spread of the disease.

Under the new leadership of Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the CDC continues to recommend people wear masks “in public settings, at events and gatherings, and anywhere they will be around other people.”

Dr. Terry Adirim, a former associate dean of the medical school at Florida Atlantic University and a public health expert, said she knew of no studies that disputed the protective value of wearing of masks.

“Masks have been demonstrated to greatly reduce the transmission of the virus. Period,” she said.

Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said DeSantis should credit local officials for helping bring back the state’s economy by implementing measures, like mask mandates. Local measures helped slow the spread of the disease and allowed people to return to work.

“We aren’t out of the woods yet and, obviously as indicated by the rebounding economic indicators, masks are not hindering economic growth,” she said via text. “The Governor should let us govern our local communities. Voters elected us, too.”

DeSantis acknowledged that those on the panel were not in the mainstream. But he thanked them for their courage in being willing to express opinions that “go against the grain.”

During the afternoon press conference, DeSantis also reiterated his plan to make vaccines available to everyone in the state sometime in April. (None of the vaccines have been approved for those under age 16.)

After the state received its only shipment of 177,000 one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccines several weeks ago, he said no more are expected for at least three weeks.

But, he said, the state would continue to receive weekly allocations of roughly 400,000 Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which require booster shots.

Further, thousands of more vaccines are flowing into the state through the federal pharmacy program, which is supplying retailers, including Publix, CVS, Walmart, Walgreens and Winn-Dixie. The federal government is also operating four no-appointment sites in the state, including one in Miami-Dade County.

On Thursday, both CVS and Walgreens expanded the number of stores that are offering the vaccine. Shots are now available at 182 CVS stores around the state and 223 Walgreens locations.

The additional locations will enable many more of those currently eligible to get vaccinated, DeSantis said.

Those 60 and up were allowed to get shots on Monday, and already about 350,000 of the 1.42 million state residents between the ages 60 and 64 have been vaccinated, he said.

When about 700,000 of those in that age group have been vaccinated, he said he will lower the age to 55, adding nearly 1.5 million people to the eligibility rolls. That will probably happen before the end of the month, he said.