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Attorneys argue legality of Palm Beach County mask mandate

Judge says other mask mandates have 'passed constitutional muster'
Posted at 1:32 PM, Jul 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-21 20:44:47-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Attorneys debated a lawsuit challenging Palm Beach County's mask mandate Tuesday in court.

The 37-page lawsuit was filed last month by the Florida Civil Rights Coalition.

Lawyers for four Palm Beach County residents argued before Judge John Kastrenakes that an ordinance requiring that masks be worn in public places infringes upon the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs.

Louis Leo IV, who is one of the attorneys representing Rachel Eade, Karen Holme, Josie Machovic and Robert Spreitzer, claimed that the fundamental rights of citizens have "without a doubt" been violated.

Leo played several videos for Kastrenakes during the Zoom hearing, including one from Fox News in which Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams advised against wearing masks, saying they were ineffective and could increase the chance of people getting sick.

Leo also played a video of Dr. Alina Alonso, the head of the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County, speaking to county commissioners. Leo noted that Alonso and several commissioners were not wearing masks.

Kastrenakes pointed out that the recommendations of medical professionals have since changed.

Leo countered that there is no national or state mask mandate to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Kastrenakes said that Alachua and Leon counties have issued similar mandates that were reviewed by circuit courts and "passed constitutional muster."

"Can you point me to any decision by any court that has found a similar mask ordinance to be unconstitutional?" the judge asked.

Leo could not.

Kastrenakes also said he believed Palm Beach County's ordinance was more liberal than most, explaining that it is the only ordinance, to which he was aware, that provides a religious exemption.

"We're talking about the right to breathe fresh air," Leo continued.

Leo also spoke about the various businesses in the county that have mandated masks because of the order.

"Businesses have the right, as long as they're not violating equal protection, to ban people walking into their place without a mask on throughout the United States of America," Kastrenakes said.

He mentioned Florida-based Publix as one of the many stores requiring masks nationwide.

67 Publix pharmacies in Palm Beach County are now administering the COVID-19 vaccine to residents.jpg
67 Publix pharmacies in Palm Beach County are now administering the COVID-19 vaccine to residents.

"Starting July 21, Publix, throughout the great state of Florida, you can go to the home of Publix in Lakeland, Florida, where there is no mask ordinance, and you would not be admitted to a Publix if you didn't wear a mask," he said.

Palm Beach County commissioners unanimously voted last month in favor of the mask mandate to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus amid a recent surge in cases throughout the county and state.

Rachel Fahey, an attorney for the county, argued that the motion should be denied because it lacks merit. She said the county order is only in effect because it's during a state of emergency.

"Plaintiffs retain choices," Fahey said. "There is nobody forcing the plaintiffs to ride a Palm Beach County bus, go to a government building, be in public in less than 6 feet away from somebody or go to business establishments in person. They retain choices about where they can be and not wear facial coverings if that is their choice."

Another county attorney, Anaili Cure, said the order will be reviewed every 30 days by county commissioners. Cure said the county's emergency orders are reviewed every seven days.

During his rebuttal, Leo said the county "is just making it up as they go." Leo said Holme, one of the plaintiffs, was removed from commission chambers because she wasn't wearing a mask, even though she was exempt, Leo claimed, while Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who also wasn't wearing a mask, was allowed to remain.

Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay explains vote on mask mandate
"This idea that we are somehow trampling the US Constitution doesn't resonate with me," Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay says before the deciding vote on requiring masks in public places, June 23, 2020, in West Palm Beach, Fla.

"This really shows the discriminatory nature of the policy and how arbitrary it is," Leo said.

Leo also spoke about the illogic of an ordinance that exempts certain active carriers and not those who are asymptomatic.

"To make only asymptomatic people that the county hasn't proven actually have COVID wear masks is ridiculous," he said. "It's not rational. It's completely based on conjecture and also speculation."

The judge interrupted him.

"I have to correct you on this just from living life," Kastrenakes said. "Because you sneeze doesn't mean you're sick. ... People sneeze irrespective of illness every day all the time."

Kastrenakes said the county's logic is that someone who sneezes could potentially get someone else sick.

"Sneezing is just a part of living," he said.

Kastrenakes said he will make a written ruling at a later date, likely within a week.