TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — One of the first responsibilities of all governments is to protect its citizens from harm. That is an agreement made between citizens and elected leaders. In Florida, this fundamental promise of protecting the security of Floridians has been called into question lately with Governor DeSantis’s recent emergency executive order taking away the authority of local governments to require face masks in schools. (Executive Order No. 21-175)
Although Florida’s elected officials often state that the government closest to the people governs best, there have been countless instances when Florida’s state government has prohibited local authorities like mayors, county commissioners and school boards from taking actions in the manner that best fits a local community. In the past, Florida’s heavy-handed preemption of home rule has overruled regulations involving community-centric gun safety measures and natural resource preservation.
Now, our state government has made the politically motivated choice to disallow school boards to take necessary measures to protect children from the danger of COVID-19 by banning required mask-wearing in public schools. This erosion of the power of home rule is corrosive to democracy leaving local officials stripped of their authority to make decisions based on local conditions that vary tremendously across the state.
The League of Women Voters of Florida has previously voiced supporting home rule in the fight against COVID-19. We believe that voters want to see their local elected officials handle their local problems. To limit the will of local officials on local matters can be likened to canceling out the vote of those who voted to elect the local officeholder. Earlier in the fight against the pandemic, our governor applauded local governments in North Florida for deciding to keep beaches open because of low transmission rates at that time, while South Florida experienced much higher transmissions and responded differently with more mask requirements. When local governments were not mandating masks or closing beaches, the governor’s sentiment was that local authorities know best.
Governor DeSantis stated in March 2020:
“We will absolutely work with the locals to effectuate policy that they think makes sense and we’re going to do that tomorrow when we issue the order with the Broward and Palm Beach communities. And we’re happy to work with them. And as part of that order, what I think I want to do, is also delegate the local administrators the authority to tailor that as circumstances change, because I think this is a very dynamic situation.” (Source: Politico)
Simply not allowing localities to even consider adhering to the CDC’s guidance to require masks for the safety of our children in schools is dangerous. The League urges Governor DeSantis to revert to his earlier position when he expressed that local authorities know best.