Challenge to mask mandate goes to Supreme Court

Florida News
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Will wearing two masks better protect me from the virus? AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) — After months of legal wrangling across Florida about mask requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic, a challenge to a Palm Beach County mask mandate has gone to the state Supreme Court.

Opponents of the mandate have filed a notice that is a first step in asking the Supreme Court to consider arguments that the Palm Beach County mandate is unconstitutional, according to documents posted Thursday on the Supreme Court website.

The move came after a panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal on Jan. 27 upheld a circuit judge’s refusal to block the mask requirement.

As is common, the notice does not detail the arguments that the plaintiffs will make at the Supreme Court, other than to say that justices have jurisdiction to hear the case because the 4th District Court of Appeal ruling “expressly construed a provision of the Florida Constitution.”

While justices do not have to take up the case, it could become a test for challenges to mask requirements in the state. For example, the 1st District Court of Appeal heard arguments in November in a challenge to an Alachua County mask requirement, though it has not issued a ruling.

Palm Beach County issued an emergency order in June that required face coverings to be worn at businesses and government facilities, on public transportation and in other public places where social distancing is not possible. The order, which has been extended several times, includes exceptions to the mask requirement for such things as eating, according to the appeals court.

Days after the order was issued, five residents filed a lawsuit seeking a temporary injunction and raised issues such as alleged violations of privacy and due-process rights. After the circuit judge ruled against them, they went to the appeals court, where they focused on the issue of whether the order violated the right to refuse medical treatment, according to the Jan. 27 ruling.

But the appeals court said the Palm Beach county requirement “does not implicate the constitutional right to choose or refuse medical treatment.”

“(Requiring) facial coverings to be worn in public is not primarily directed at treating a medical condition of the person wearing the mask/shield,” said the ruling, written by Judge Alan Forst and joined by Judges Martha Warner and Mark Klingensmith. “Instead, requiring individuals to cover their nose and mouth while out in public is intended to prevent the transmission from the wearer of the facial covering to others (with a secondary benefit being the protection of the mask wearer). Requiring facial coverings in public settings is akin to the state’s prohibiting individuals from smoking in enclosed indoor workplaces.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis has declined to issue a statewide mask mandate amid the coronavirus pandemic, but numerous local governments have approved such requirements. 

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