(Reuters) - A state judge on Friday ruled that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' administration cannot ban public school districts from requiring face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19, saying it overstepped its authority.
The decision by 2nd Circuit Judge John Cooper marked an important turning point in the political tug-of-war between the Republican governor, who has said parents should decide if their child wears a mask in school, and several Florida school districts that defied the governor's order by requiring that masks be worn as children return to the classroom.
Appearing by video at a Zoom hearing, the judge said the governor's administration overstepped its authority by issuing and seeking to enforce an order that prevented districts from mandating masks.
"The defendants do not have authority ... to a blanket mandatory ban against a face mask policy that does not provide a parental opt out. They simply do not have that authority," Cooper said.
Ten of Florida's 67 school districts have imposed mask mandates with only a medical opt-out, the Tampa Bay Times reported. DeSantis' administration has threatened to withhold funding from those districts for imposing mandates, but the judge's injunction bars it from doing that.
"We will continue to defend the law and parent's rights in Florida, and will immediately appeal the ruling to the First District Court of Appeals, where we are confident we will prevail on the merits of the case," DeSantis told local TV station WPBF.
Florida is one of several states where Republican governors have sought to prevent local governments and school districts from mandating masks. These governors have said that such rules infringe on personal liberty. Proponents of mask mandates have said the rules are necessary to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic, as cases rise particularly in areas with lower vaccination rates, driven by the highly infectious coronavirus Delta variant.
The public health crisis has been especially acute in Florida, where more than 16,000 people currently are hospitalized with COVID-19, according to a Reuters tally.
For a graphic tracking U.S. COVID-19 trends, see https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/USA-TRENDS/dgkvlgkrkpb/index.html
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter)