Under fire, Florida surgeon general says he can't communicate clearly while masked – Tallahassee Democrat
The same day he was “denounced” by Black clergy for refusing to wear a mask when asked by a state senator, Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo explained on social media he can’t “communicate clearly” when “half of my face is covered.”
On Tuesday, Ladapo posted a statement on his Twitter feed that he was saddened by state Sen. Tina Polsky’s cancer diagnosis, and had tried to find a way to accommodate her concerns without wearing a mask when he met with her ahead of confirmation hearings.
“Having a conversation with someone while wearing a mask is not something I find productive, especially when other options exist,” he wrote. “It is important for me to communicate effectively with people. I can’t do that when half of my face is covered.”
Also Tuesday, a Black Republican minister who’s head of a statewide effort to get people of color vaccinated against COVID-19 is leading civil rights leaders and others to denounce Gov. Ron DeSantis, Ladapo and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.
“We are extremely alarmed and saddened that the surgeon general would not meet with the elected state senator from Broward County when she asked respectfully, ‘Will you please, sir, wear a mask,’ ” the Rev. Dr. R.B. Holmes Jr. told a group of reporters at Tallahassee’s Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, where he is pastor. “For that top doctor to not wear a mask is disrespectful and dishonorable.”
Moreover, he announced he planned to change his voter registration from Republican to independent. Holmes gave the benediction at DeSantis’ inauguration in January 2019.
Holmes was referring to an incident last week where Ladapo refused to wear a mask in Polsky’s Senate office in the Capitol at her request. The Boca Raton Democrat has since disclosed that she has breast cancer, and reportedly told Ladapo that she had a serious medical condition.
It was Ladapo’s first comment on the matter as he comes under increasing criticism from Democrats, lawmakers and others.
“I respect all individuals, and I would never knowingly disrespect anyone,” he wrote. “As surgeon general of Florida, Floridians can count on me to lead with integrity and communicate truthfully about data and scientific evidence.”
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, later sent out a letter in which he did not mention Ladapo by name but said “what occurred in Senator Polsky’s office was unprofessional and will not be tolerated in the Senate.”
He said that there is no mask mandate in the Senate but “Senators and staff can request social distancing and masking within their own offices. If visitors to the Senate fail to respect these requests, they will be asked to leave.”
Ladapo’s spokesperson, Health Department communications director Weesam Khoury, said the department “will be addressing (the Polsky incident) directly with members of the Senate, rather than letting this play out publicly.
“While we weren’t aware of any specific Senate protocol, we will certainly ask members ahead of time and make necessary accommodations, such as meeting through Zoom or outdoors.”
At Tuesday’s press conference, the Rev. Joe Parramore, a member of the Faith in Public Life Florida Leadership, called Ladapo’s actions “reprehensible,” done willfully and with intent, with total disregard for Polsky.
“The Senate President’s statement is not enough,” Parramore said. “We don’t need political posturing. We need leadership.”
Ladapo’s actions should disqualify him from being appointed surgeon general, Parramore said, and he should withdraw his nomination. Short of that, he said, “Simpson should lead the Senate to a ‘no’ vote on his confirmation.”
Hours later, Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz echoed Parramore’s sentiments, saying Ladapo should resign immediately.
“Barring that, Governor DeSantis should withdraw his nomination,” Diaz said in a written statement. “If neither of those things happen, I call for the state Senate to reject his nomination when the Legislature convenes in January.”
Holmes convened members of local chapters of the National Action Network, The Urban League, NAACP and local ministers at “A Call to Conscience” event Tuesday afternoon at his church.
Holmes also is chair and organizer of the Statewide Vaccination Community Education and Engagement Task Force, which has been working to help Black communities and other people of color get over their vaccine hesitancy.
He and his colleagues not only called out Ladapo for his disrespect of Polsky, they also voiced their opposition to the governor and education commissioner withholding the salaries and benefits of school boards that imposed mask mandates on students in defiance of Department of Education orders.
Appointed by DeSantis Sept. 21, Ladapo faces confirmation by the Florida Senate in the next regular legislative session, which begins Jan. 11. As surgeon general, he is also head of the Department of Health. DeSantis must send a letter of appointment to the Secretary of State for that process to begin.
Under Florida law, however, agency heads who need Senate confirmation get two legislative sessions to pass muster before they must leave their office.
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The state also decided to withhold money equivalent to federal grants some school districts received to replace the withheld salaries.
“Such punitive measures hurt Black communities the most,” said Na’im Akbar, President of the Tallahassee Chapter of the NAACP. “The governor and his cabinet don’t have any concern for this community.”
Holmes said he was glad the federal government decided to intervene and tell state education officials they were wrong to withhold those funds.
Holmes and his fellow ministers and civil rights leaders vowed to raise money to help school officials whose salaries were being withheld.
More:Biden Administration warns Florida over financial sanctions against school boards with mask mandates
Leon County School Board member Darryl Jones, who also attended the event, said what the governor and other state officials don’t realize is that school board members aren’t motivated by money.
“They fail to realize our motivation is principle and not principal,” Jones said. “Principal doesn’t buy our obedience.”
Jeffrey Schweers is a capital bureau reporter for USA TODAY Network-Florida. Contact Schweers at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.
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