Ruling in an Alachua County mask mandate argument could serve as a test for statewide mask requirements

The argument will be heard Nov. 23 by a panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal.

An appeals court Friday said it will hear arguments in a challenge to the constitutionality of an Alachua County order requiring people to wear face masks to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The Alachua County case, which will be heard Nov. 23 by a panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal, could serve as a test for mask requirements that have been approved in various parts of the state. Opponents have filed a series of lawsuits challenging the requirements, with at least three cases landing at the Tallahassee-based appeals court. Along with the Alachua County case, the other appeals involve Leon and Gadsden counties.

Circuit Judge Donna Keim in May refused to grant a temporary injunction to block the Alachua County order, which requires people at businesses such as grocery stores and restaurants to wear face masks. That prompted plaintiff Justin Green, who operates a nursery business, to appeal.

In a brief filed in June, Green’s attorneys argued, in part, that the order violates privacy and free-speech rights.

“There are less intrusive and more narrowly tailored means available to the county to achieve its goals,” attorneys Seldon Childers and J. Eric Hope wrote. “It could follow the less intrusive orders of other counties that strongly recommend face masks to residents. It could work with the governor or the Legislature to develop an emergency order that passes constitutional muster and is grounded in proper authority. It is a red herring to suggest that a decision in Justin Green’s favor would create any prejudice or damage the health or well-being of Alachua County.”

But county attorneys said in a September brief that Green’s “right to privacy ends where the risk of transmission of disease begins” and disputed that the order is unconstitutional.

“The Supreme Court has specifically recognized that the preservation of life and the protection of innocent third parties are factors properly to be considered in determining the extent of an individual’s right of privacy,” the county’s brief said. “In these circumstances, the county’s obligation to protect the health and safety of its citizens far outweighs plaintiff’s desire ‘to be left alone’ when he ventures from the privacy of his home into public where he places others at potential risk.”

Throughout the pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis has rejected issuing a statewide mask mandate. He also issued an executive order in September that suspended collection of fines and penalties related to violations of mask requirements, but that did not prevent local governments from continuing to have the requirements.

In her May ruling, Keim likened the mask issue to other government-approved safety requirements, such as the requirement that motorists wear seat belts.

“The stated purpose for the mask requirement is to limit the spread of this contagious, airborne virus and the BOCC (Board of County Commissioners) has provided evidence which includes substantial data indicating that face coverings may assist in reducing the spread of the virus,” Keim wrote. “Alachua County is responsible for reducing the spread of COVID-19 among its citizens and also for ensuring its citizens have access to medical care if they become infected. An individual Alachua County citizen's right to be let alone is no more precious than the corresponding right of his fellow citizens not to become infected by that person and potentially hospitalized.”

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