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Florida surgeon general refuses mask, is told to leave meeting with state senator

woman wearing glasses speaks into microphone that she is holding
Steve Cannon
Rep. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, debates during a session Tuesday March 10, 2020, in Tallahassee, Florida's top health official was asked to leave a meeting after refusing to wear a mask at the office of the state senator who told him she had a serious medical condition.

President Wilton Simpson sent a memo to senators saying it was disappointing to learn of the incident at the office of Democratic state Sen. Tina Polsky.

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson has backed Sen. Tina Polsky, a Boca Raton Democrat who is being treated for breast cancer, after an incident in which state Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo refused to put on a mask while they spoke.

Simpson, R-Trilby, sent a memo Saturday evening to senators and staff members after the Florida Politics website reported about the incident. The memo did not mention Ladapo by name but criticized the refusal to put on a mask after being asked by Polsky.

“The prayers of the entire Senate family are with Senator Polsky as she begins her treatment,” Simpson wrote. “However, it shouldn’t take a cancer diagnosis for people to respect each other’s level of comfort with social interactions during a pandemic.

“What occurred in Senator Polsky’s office was unprofessional and will not be tolerated in the Senate. While there is no mask mandate in the Senate, 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, appointed last month as surgeon general and secretary of the Department of Health, has drawn controversy because of his views on COVID-19 issues. As an example, shortly after moving into the job, he issued a rule — designed to carry out a DeSantis executive order — that sought to bar student mask requirements and give parents more authority to decide whether asymptomatic students return to school after being exposed to COVID-19.

An administrative law judge held a hearing last week in a challenge by six school boards to the rule.

Polsky announced last week that she had been diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer and had undergone a procedure to have the tumor and lymph nodes removed. She said she would begin targeted radiation treatment in the coming days.

Florida Politics reported Saturday that Polsky asked Ladapo and two of his legislative aides to leave her office after the surgeon general refused to go along with her request to wear a mask. The website also reported that Polsky was taking precautions because a positive test for COVID-19 could delay treatment.

The website said Department of Health communications director Weesam Khoury confirmed the meeting but disputed a comment that Polsky said Ladapo had made.

The incident touched off criticism of Ladapo by Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation. Ladapo’s appointment is ultimately subject to Senate confirmation.

“The Surgeon General’s job is to protect the health & safety of all Floridians — yet when @TinaPolsky — recently diagnosed with breast cancer — asked him to don a mask to protect HER health & safety, he refused,” Book said on Twitter. “This is unacceptable.”

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.