Miami-Dade County's mandatory mask order will remain in place after a county judge upheld the measure this week, saying that public health trumped the "slight interference" to daily life caused by donning a mask.
The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed against the county by local travel agent Linda Cuadros, who argued that the mask order violated her rights to privacy and due process. Cuadros characterized the mandate as "a radical infringement of the reasonable and legitimate expectation of privacy."
Miami-Dade County has had a mask mandate in place since April 2020 but has not been able to enforce it with fines since September because of restrictions imposed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The court's decision was handed down against Cuadros on February 16. It dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning Cuadros will have a chance to amend and resubmit the lawsuit. She has 20 days from the date of the ruling to do so.
In dismissing the case, Judge Oscar Rodriguez-Fonts wrote that "the protection of the public at large outweighs the right of an individual to decide whether or not they should wear a mask." He likened the mask order to motorcycle helmet laws that were upheld in the Florida Supreme Court and the Southern District of Florida more than 50 years ago.
"Florida case law is full of examples of how certain clothing regulations are a proper exercise of a government's police power," the judge wrote.
Rodriguez-Fonts applied a legal standard known as strict scrutiny, under which the county had to show that the mask order was a minimally intrusive way of slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. According to the judge, the county met that burden.
"The mask mandate is the least intrusive manner in achieving the goal of reducing the spread of COVID-19, as the body may take a while to show symptoms, and in some cases, may not show any symptom at all," the judge's order states.
Rodriguez-Fonts also rejected Cuadros' claim that the mask order was too broadly written and left "significant terms undefined." He found that "there is nothing vague about" the version of the order currently in place. The order has been rewritten since the lawsuit was filed, making some of Cuadros' legal arguments moot, the judge noted.
Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber tells New Times the ruling provides a fitting end to a legal debate that he viewed as "absurd" from the start.
"We ask people to stop at stop signs, to not smoke indoors. The [mask] order was a health and safety measure that was intended to protect the public, not just the person who is wearing the mask," Gelber says.
The ruling is the latest in a series of courtroom defeats for Cuadros' lawyer, Anthony Sabatini, who is also a Republican member of the Florida House of Representatives. Sabatini has filed more than a dozen challenges to mandatory mask mandates across the state. Judges have resoundingly rejected his clients' claims that the rules are unconstitutional.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal also handed down a decision last month that upheld a Palm Beach County mask order, in a case filed by attorney Louis Leo of the Florida Civil Rights Coalition. The appeals court rejected the plaintiff's argument that the Palm Beach mask mandate was a form of forced medical treatment.
In July, Sabatini told New Times that he believed constitutional rights "should not be stripped away as a tool to increase safety" for what he sees as a small portion of the population that's in danger of becoming deathly ill from COVID. In public statements, Sabatini has also questioned the efficacy of masks, saying they provide people a false sense of security.
Experts enlisted by local governments to testify in Sabatini's cases have taken a decidedly different stance. In a lawsuit against the City of DeLand over its mask mandate, Dr. Peter Harman of Daytona Beach testified that wearing masks is "extremely effective when incorporated with other preventative measures."
"This isn't a parlor game," Harman testified. "I'm watching people die every day. And they may not be you, they may not be healthy people, but they're someone's grandmother."
Local enforcement of mask orders has been stifled by DeSantis' September decision to suspend mask-related fines. Gelber tells New Times that officers in Miami Beach are handing out masks in lieu of citations since DeSantis made it impossible to enforce fines.
Gelber stresses that hospitalizations linked to COVID are still elevated and that the virus remains one of the leading causes of death in South Florida. He says he's concerned Miami-Dade residents are letting their guard down and returning to their pre-pandemic way of life too soon.
"Fatigue is setting in. The vaccine has created this sense that we're past it, when we really are not. I think we're going to look back on this thing and just see normalization of mass deaths," Gelber says.
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