Calling it a “radical infringement” of constitutional rights, the head of the Republican Party in Leon County teamed with a conservative state representative Thursday to challenge a local ordinance requiring people to wear face coverings to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“I don’t have a problem with masks. I have a problem with government mandating action in our private lives,” Evan Power, a Tallahassee lobbyist who is the chairman of the Leon County Republican Executive Committee, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview.
The lawsuit illustrates the partisan flashpoint created by face masks, despite the recommendations of public health officials in Florida and throughout the nation who say face coverings can reduce the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Flagler County governments and the Flagler County Health Department launched a campaign to encourage people to wear masks. The campaign, and a joint proclamation issued Wednesday by all local governments, stops short of mandating mask-wearing.
President Donald Trump has refused to wear a face covering and his supporters have embraced his stance, branding masks not as a public health necessity but as a government intrusion into personal liberties.
“Under emergency orders, we walk a fine line between what’s right and what’s wrong in intruding in people’s lives,” Power said.
Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Republican lawyer from Howey-in-the-Hills, is representing Power in the challenge to the ordinance, unanimously approved by the Leon County Commission during an emergency meeting on Tuesday.
In a telephone interview, Sabatini denied that the lawsuit had political overtones.
“It’s a legal case,” he said. “I don’t really think this is a real emergency at this point.”
The county mask mandate excludes “business owners, managers, and employees who are in an area of a business establishment that is not open to customers, patrons, or the public, provided that six feet of distance exists between persons.”
The lawsuit alleges that the Leon County COVID-19 orders “have caused interference” with Power’s “personal liberty and business enterprise.” Along with lobbying, Power owns the Seven Hills Strategy Group political consulting firm.
But Leon County Commissioner Rick Minor maintains the mask requirement is justified.
“We’re in the midst of a global pandemic, and wearing masks to keep people safe shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Minor, a Democrat, said in a telephone interview Thursday. “Instead of wasting the court’s time with this frivolous lawsuit, the Leon GOP should work with us to encourage mask wearing, physical distancing and COVID-19 testing. It’s the American thing to do.”
The Leon County ordinance came as the number of COVID-19 cases in Florida continued to skyrocket this week. The state added another 5,004 cases on Thursday.
The Republicans’ legal complaint cited guidelines issued by President Donald Trump’s administration on April 16, which advised that people “strongly consider using face coverings while in public.” The lawsuit also refers to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “phased approach” to reopening the state, which “did not include the requirement that Floridians wear masks in any setting.”
DeSantis, a Republican who has close political ties to Trump, has refused to issue a statewide mandate for face coverings, despite pressure from Democrats.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the lone statewide elected Democrat, called on the governor Thursday to require people to wear masks in public places.
“Everybody should be wearing masks,” Fried told the News Service earlier this week.
But Power’s lawsuit questions the efficacy of face masks, pointing to a World Health Organization announcement this month that said it is rare that asymptomatic people transmit the virus.
“At the present time, the widespread use of masks everywhere is not supported by high-quality scientific evidence,” the WHO posted on its website on June 7.
The WHO’s conclusions cast “serious doubt on the rationality and effectiveness of wearing masks in public places,” Sabatini wrote in Thursday’s 12-page lawsuit.
The Leon County ordinance “is a radical infringement of the reasonable and legitimate expectation of privacy that most Floridians expect to have over their own bodily and facial autonomy in addition to their medical privacy,” Sabatini argued.
The ordinance also violates constitutional due-process protections because it is “arbitrary and unreasonable” and “is not backed by a compelling state interest or any facts proving such an interest,” Sabatini alleged.
The Republicans argued that the county has achieved its goal of “flattening the curve” of new hospitalizations related to COVID-19.
For example, only six COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in Leon County on Tuesday, the day the ordinance was passed.
The lawsuit also alleges that the ordinance violates equal-protection rights because certain government employees, including police officers, are exempt from wearing masks.
“No difference of risk or exposure and infection exists between those required to wear masks and government employees,” Sabatini wrote.
An injunction blocking the ordinance is necessary to “serve the public interest,” Sabatini argued.
“The citizens of the Leon County public are burdened by the over-reach of their local government unprecedented in Florida history,” he wrote.
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida, and FlaglerLive