Defiant in the face of new federal mask recommendations, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida on Friday signed an executive order directing state officials to ensure that parents have the power to decide for themselves whether their children wear masks in school this fall.
Mr. DeSantis, a Republican who has made freedom from Covid-19 restrictions a signature part of his administration, announced that he would sign an order “protecting the rights of parents” amid an intensifying national movement to control the pandemic, as a highly contagious Delta variant of the virus rips through the unvaccinated population.
“In Florida, there will be no lockdowns,” Mr. DeSantis said to cheers at a restaurant in Cape Coral, Fla. “There will be no school closures. There will be no restrictions and no mandates.”
The announcement came after Broward County, the second largest school district in Florida, voted this week to require masks in schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had also recommended that all students, teachers and employees wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status.
Mr. DeSantis called for a stop to school mask mandates and said that the decision should be in the hands of parents, not school or health officials.
His order directed state agencies to ensure that school safety protocols do not interfere with parents’ rights to make health care decisions about their children and empowered the state commissioner of education to withhold state funding from school districts that do not comply.
The issue of masking in schools is particularly potent in Florida, which is experiencing one of the fastest Covid-19 outbreaks in the country and where hospitals are once again filling up with coronavirus patients. In Jacksonville, hospitals have more Covid patients than ever before, despite the availability of vaccines.
Less than half of the Florida population is fully vaccinated, and children under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
Many schools in Florida will be starting within weeks, which Mr. DeSantis said added to the urgency of the situation.
Citing research that found that transmission of the virus in schools was low last year, Mr. DeSantis reiterated that the decision about masks should be in the hands of the parents.
He said his order would not impede children being masked if their parents so choose, without acknowledging that universal masking — not just of those who opt to wear masks — plays a role in interrupting transmission.
“We really do need to make sure that the parents’ rights are protected,” he said.