By Shawntia Nicholson

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed policymakers in a tricky position, Gov. DeSantis included. He and others are forced to find a balance between protecting public health and safeguarding individual freedom. 

One of Gov. DeSantis’ signature initiatives is a ban on agencies and businesses that might want to impose a universal mask requirement for their employees and customers. While a recent court decision invalidated the ban as “overreach,” policymakers and business owners are uncertain about the ban’s legal status. 

Regardless of their legal status, universal mask bans run contrary to conservative policy principles. State government bans take away choice from school districts, businesses, parents and other individuals who wish to take prudent COVID-19 safety precautions.

As the new school year began and the state faced record COVID-19 casualties, Gov. DeSantis issued Executive Order 21-175. This order prevents K-12 and higher education schools from establishing mask mandates.

This mask ban was initiated to protect “the freedoms and statutory rights of students and parents by resting with the parents the decision of whether their children should wear masks in school.” The order goes so far as to threaten legal action and to cut funding for any district that fails to follow this policy. At least 10 school districts have risen in opposition to the ban, including Leon, Alachua, Duval and Broward counties. 

While Gov. DeSantis claims his intention is to stand up for individual choice, his order actually overrides choice. 

Florida is not “one size fits all.” After all, the population and density of schools in Orlando is significantly different from those in Tallahassee or Jefferson County. Individual districts and businesses should have the freedom to choose how to handle this public health crisis and changing COVID conditions.

By threatening to take away school funding, Gov. DeSantis, and this order, exhibit a paternalism that counters conservative principles. If the intention of the policy is to stand up for individual freedom, why is it instead reducing choice at both the district and individual level?

Masks are intended to protect those around us — not necessarily the individual wearing one. Sure, parents can still opt to have their kids wear a mask to school. But mask mandates are not intended just for personal safety — they are also intended to protect those nearby. 

Economist Albert O. Hirschman outlined two potential ways citizens can respond in democracies to policies they disagree with: exit or voice. Parents who wish to enroll their children in a mask-friendly school do not have the option to “exit” to a new county, as this policy would be in place statewide. Voicing opinions have become costly as the state government threatens to withhold funds to districts that stand in opposition to the governor’s executive order.

If Florida wanted to take a principled conservative approach, as Gov. DeSantis claims, this executive order should be rescinded. Rather than having big government step in, school districts should be allowed to make the decisions that best fit their locality, and parents should have the ability to find alternative arrangements that align with their beliefs — without having to leave their home state to do so.

Originally published in the Tallahassee Democrat.

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