The only place nine-year-old Reefy Kinder wants to be is in school with her friends. She has missed so many lessons in six years battling a long-term gastro-intestinal condition, including more than 30 surgeries during many months as an inpatient at Orlando’s Arnold Palmer children’s hospital, that she figures she has a lot to catch up on.
Standing in her way, according to Reefy and her mother, Jamie, are Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, and his handpicked new state surgeon general Joseph Ladapo, an opponent of mask mandates who believes vaccines are no more effective than eating healthily and losing weight in the fight against Covid-19.
On his first full day on the job last week, Ladapo issued an edict making quarantine optional for students who have been directly exposed to coronavirus. Combined with DeSantis’s own ruling outlawing mask mandates in Florida schools, the Kinders believe it is now too risky for Reefy, who is immuno-compromised, to return to her lessons for the first time since March 2020.
“How many parents are public health professionals, how many are doctors, how many have any experience with this virus?” said Jamie Kinder, 47, referring to DeSantis’s repeated insistence that parents were better placed than health officials to make decisions for their children.
“The parents that are going to send their kids into school Covid-positive, without masks, without mitigation, these parents are making decisions for me now. We barely go out, if we go to the beach we sit alone, and she can’t see her friends who are back in school because we don’t know if they’re being exposed or not. So she’s truly in isolation. Where are my rights? Where are Reefy’s?”
Ladapo arrived at the state’s department of health in the same week that Florida passed 50,000 Covid deaths and moved into the top 10 states for highest per capita death rate.
His appointment, on a salary almost twice that of his predecessor, has added fuel to an already incendiary battle between DeSantis, a Donald Trump loyalist tipped for a White House run in 2024, and 13 defiant school districts with mask requirements covering more than half of Florida’s 2.8m public school students (Volusia county, where the Kinders live, is not among them).
As well as making quarantine optional, the new rule gives parents “sole discretion” on whether to send their children to school in masks, superseding DeSantis’s near-identical earlier order and forcing a judge to dismiss the districts’ legal challenge to the mask mandate ban because the rule it was based on no longer exists.
“It’s just political maneuvering to change the rules in the middle of the game,” Chris Petley, spokesperson for Leon county, one of the five districts involved in the case, told the Daily Beast.
Political opponents, meanwhile, are challenging DeSantis’s appointment of a doctor whose position on Covid is more aligned with the governor’s than with guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“The governor and his cronies have lost a grip on reality facing our state and are endlessly pandering to their base regardless of Floridians that they hurt,” said Charlie Crist, the former Florida governor and Democratic congressman seeking to unseat DeSantis in next year’s gubernatorial election.
“Dr Ladapo has made it abundantly clear where he stands,” Crist said. “He is not with parents, students and teachers, he’s decided to help the governor lead the charge on a soft-on-Covid approach that makes our communities less safe and more prone to an outbreak.”
In a tweet, Florida’s agriculture commissioner, Nikki Fried, who is also running for the Democratic nomination, was equally forthright. “When you elect me governor of Florida, I’ll appoint a qualified surgeon general who actually gives a damn about public health,” she said.
Ladapo, a Harvard medical school graduate branded a “well educated Covid crank” by the Orlando Sentinel’s editorial board, is not the first doctor with controversial views courted by DeSantis.
In March, the governor hosted a roundtable of science “experts” that included Dr Scott Atlas, a radiologist with little experience in infectious diseases and a promoter of the discredited herd immunity theory who was Trump’s special adviser on Covid.
Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’s media spokesperson, defended Ladapo in an email. “Like Governor DeSantis, Dr Ladapo is not against vaccines or masks, he is against vaccine mandates and forced masking,” she said, according to The Hill.
In a further statement she attacked Crist directly. “It’s laughable that a career politician considers himself enough of a medical expert to assert that a Harvard-trained physician, who has published copious peer-reviewed research on diseases, taught at one of the top medical schools in the world (UCLA), and has extensive experience treating hospitalized patients at the prestigious UCLA Health system in Los Angeles, is somehow unqualified to be the surgeon general of our state,” she said.
Reefy Kinder, meanwhile, does not care for the political squabbling. Her priority is getting back to her fourth-grade classroom.
“I don’t understand why the governor and the new surgeon general don’t care about my safety and health, or any other child,” she said.