Gov. Ron DeSantis quietly held a roundtable discussion last week at the Capitol that focused on opposition to mask mandates in schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. DeSantis' office did not give prior notice to the public and excluded reporters from the meeting.
Similar events in the past have been open to the media and broadcast by the Florida Channel, a state-funded service that covers myriad government meetings. Last week's panel discussion was recorded by the governor's staff and posted to DeSantis' online video-streaming platform of choice, Rumble.
The event was held as hospitals across the state saw sharp increases in COVID-19 patients because of the Delta variant of the coronavirus and lagging vaccination rates. Meanwhile, Florida students are preparing for the school year to begin in a matter of weeks.
"We in Florida, to this point, our school districts have proposed mask-optional (policies)," DeSantis said in a video of the meeting published last Tuesday. "But I think our fear is that, seeing some of those rumblings, that there'd be an attempt from the federal level or even some of these organizations to try to push for mandatory masking of school children."
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has said that President Joe Biden's administration is following guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on masks in schools. The CDC issued new guidelines last Tuesday advising that all people, including those who are fully vaccinated, wear masks in schools and areas of "substantial or high" transmission. The federal government has not mandated masks in schools.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters that "new science related to the Delta variant" of the coronavirus prompted the change.
Guidelines released July 9 said children younger than 12 should wear masks in schools, because they remain ineligible for vaccination.
One of the roundtable participants was Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University whom the governor called on last year to support his position on keeping schools open for in-person instruction during the pandemic.
"I don't think the Delta variant changes the calculus or the evidence in any fundamental way, governor," Bhattacharya said when asked by DeSantis if the highly transmissible variant should change the state's approach to masks in schools.
Cody Meissner, chief of Tufts University's Division of Pediatric Infectious Disease, also participated in the event and argued that wearing a mask is "not a very effective way of preventing disease."
Los Angeles-based clinical psychiatrist Mark McDonald argued during the event that "masking children is child abuse."
The First Amendment Foundation says DeSantis impeded the public's ability to be informed of government actions by excluding the media from attending.
DeSantis also invited an incoming senior from a Tallahassee private school, the mother of two students at a Tallahassee charter school and head of a Jacksonville charter school to participate.
Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the DeSantis administration is increasingly using Rumble as its platform of choice after a previous roundtable discussion event, featuring Bhattacharya, was removed from YouTube.
"We recorded the entire roundtable discussion to post on Rumble so it's accessible to media and the general public. We generally use Rumble for public videos these days, after experiencing censorship from YouTube several months ago," Pushaw said in an email to the News Service of Florida.
Pushaw said DeSantis "is always seeking out perspectives from experts, like Dr. Bhattacharya, on COVID-19 and other pressing issues."
The Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation said last week that DeSantis' exclusion of reporters from the event didn't violate Florida's Sunshine Law on open government.
"The constitutional right of access requires meetings of any public body of the executive branch of state government to be open and noticed to the public.
"If the meeting was just Gov. Ron DeSantis and health experts, this would not necessarily violate the constitutional right of access or Sunshine Law.
"That said, the Sunshine Law is meant to frustrate all evasive devices," Virginia Hamrick, a staff attorney with the organization, said in an email to the News Service.
But Hamrick said DeSantis impeded the public's ability to be informed of government actions by excluding the media from attending.
"By being present at meetings, journalists can inform the public of the government's agenda and decisions. Holding a meeting without notice and without the press makes it more difficult for the public to be informed of and oversee the actions of their government.
"This is true all of the time, but especially when COVID-19 cases are rising and school districts, teachers and parents must make decisions affecting the health of students and staff," Hamrick said.