Attorneys spar over masks rule in Hillsborough courtroom

Attorneys spar over mask rule in Hillsborough court

TAMPA — Supporters and opponents of a Hillsborough County ordinance requiring masks to be worn in local businesses squared off in court Friday as a judge weighed whether to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the emergency measure.

The virtual court hearing featured a lawyer for Hillsborough County who said the Plant City businessman who filed the lawsuit had no standing to challenge the mask rule. But State Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Republican lawyer from Howey-in-the-Hills, reiterated arguments that mask requirements are unconstitutional.

The lawsuit is one of several Sabatini has championed throughout the state, challenging local mask ordinances enacted as a way to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. A similar case is pending in Pinellas County. In Hillsborough, Sabatini represents Eric Gonyon, a Plant City business owner who he said has asthma.

Related: Rep. Anthony Sabatini files lawsuit against Pinellas County over mask mandate

Being forced to wear a mask could aggravate Gonyon’s medical condition, Sabatini, said, and requiring masks in his business also would violate privacy rights.

Rob Brazel, the county’s attorney, noted that the local rules include language which exempts people from wearing face coverings if they have a medical condition.

Brazel also gave his assessment of the opposing side’s argument: “They believe that they’ve got a constitutional right to forego wearing a piece of fabric over their nose and over their mouth and that they have the right essentially to infect whoever might be unlucky enough to come in contact with them with a potentially deadly virus.”

There is no case law supporting their argument, Brazel said. And courts throughout the state have rejected recent challenges to similar rules aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex M. Barbas wanted to know: How was the mask ordinance different from laws requiring food service workers to wear hair coverings? How was it different from health exams children must go through before attending school?

Sabatini said those requirements are meant to address direct potential for harm. He also said masks, when worn for long hours, were more invasive.

“Perfectly healthy individuals who don’t have the virus in their system are being asked to wear masks,” Sabatini said. “There is no risk of healthy people spreading the virus. The hair (covering), it’s clearly more about the hair. Everybody has hair.”

“Well, not everybody, counselor,” said the judge, who is bald.

Barbas determined that Gonyon had no standing to argue against the mask rules for health reasons, but he left open the possibility that he could bring his lawsuit as a business owner.

The hearing featured testimony from Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health medicine and pharmacy at the University of South Florida, who discussed the current research about the coronavirus, its contagiousness, and the public health danger it poses.

Wolfson likened the mask ordinance to other government safety regulations, like seat belts and car seats for children.

“I’m not a big fan of government messing with people’s lives,” Wolfson said. “For the most part I’m in favor of government leaving us alone. But when it comes to infectious diseases and public health dangers, governments have done important things.”

Requiring people to wear masks was a “prudent public health exercise,” Wolfson said.

“Not that I like wearing a mask all the time,” he added.

Judge Barbas made no decision Friday about whether the lawsuit should be dismissed. He set a date of Aug. 12 to hear more testimony.