Dispute occurred during official’s first month on the job
Florida’s newly appointed surgeon general has become embroiled in a dispute with members of the state Senate over his apparent refusal to abide by Covid-19 protocols set by a lawmaker’s office.
In an exchange first reported by the news blog Florida Politics, state Surgeon General Dr Joseph Ladapo was effectively tossed out of the office of state Sen Tina Polsky, a Democrat, after refusing several times to put on a mask for their indoor meeting.
Ms Polsky is currently battling breast cancer; she did not inform Dr Ladapo of the specifics of her condition, but informed him that she had a serious health issue and that her office rules required everyone to be masked while indoors, according to the blog.
What followed was a “tense” exchange, according to Florida Politics: Ms Polsky described the official as acting “smug”, smiling and refusing to answer when she questioned him if there was a reason he was refusing to follow the policy.
“He just smiles and doesn’t answer. He’s very smug,” Ms Polsky told Florida Politics in an interview, adding: “And I told him several times, ‘I have this very serious medical condition.’ And he said, ‘That’s OK’, like it basically has nothing to do with what we are talking about.”
Ms Polsky further told the news blog that Dr Ladapo made an insulting comment as he left, supposedly remarking: “Sometimes I try to reason with unreasonable people for fun.” A spokesperson for the state health department denied that comment was made.
Dr Ladapo’s dispute with the senator erupted into a full-scale dispute in the following days; on Saturday, three days after the meeting occurred, the Republican president of Florida’s state Senate issued a memo rebuking the health chief and calling his conduct “unprofessional”.
“It shouldn’t take a cancer diagnosis for people to respect each other’s level of comfort with social interactions during a pandemic,” wrote Sen Wilton Simpson, who added: “What occurred in Senator Polsky’s office was unprofessional and will not be tolerated in the Senate.”
Under Florida law, Dr Ladapo assumed the office of surgeon general and secretary of the state’s Department of Health last month when he was appointed by Gov Ron DeSantis. His appointment can still be rejected by the state Senate, however, setting up a potential battle over the outspoken official who has voiced opposition to both vaccine and mask mandates.
He has even made statements questioning the effectiveness of vaccines and masks, putting him firmly within the crowd of Republicans who haves spread misinformation about Covid-19 while the Biden administration attempts to encourage more vaccinations around the US and particularly in Covid-19 hotspots like Florida. In September, he penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed attacking the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate, bizarrely claiming that “evidence suggests it won’t” help end the pandemic.
Republican officials around the country have been engaged in similar rhetoric for months. The party now faces an internal split on the issue; many national leaders such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have encouraged Americans to get vaccinated and touted their own vaccine statuses, while leaders at the state level and some lawmakers have made statements to the complete opposite effect, even deriding the shots as supposedly dangerous.
Florida’s health department fired back at journalists over the issue in a statement attempting to cast the issue as “gossip” despite the public rebuke of the secretary’s actions from the Republican state Senate leader.
“Dr Ladapo is committed to meeting with members of the Legislature regardless of their party affiliation to discuss policy, even when they do not agree on the subject at hand,” the spokesperson for Dr Ladapo told Florida Politics. “Meetings between highly regarded and intelligent, elected and appointed officials happen all the time, and it is disappointing you don’t hear about them more – but it is probably because the only time they get reported is when a genuine meeting turns into a media headline expected from a gossip column.”