Surgeon General responds to masking dust-up: ‘I can’t do that when half of my face is covered’

His suggested alternatives weren't satisfactory to Sen. Tina Polsky.

Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo said in a statement Tuesday he would never knowingly disrespect anyone, three days after news broke that he was asked to leave a Senator’s office for not wearing a mask.

Ladapo writes that he told Sen. Tina Polsky, a Boca Raton Democrat who was diagnosed in August with stage 1 breast cancer, multiple times that she had every right to implement any safety protocols against COVID-19 in her office. Furthermore, Ladapo — who like Gov. Ron DeSantis has been a vocal opponent of mask mandates, government shutdowns, and vaccine mandates — said he attempted “in good faith” to find an alternative way to communicate that “would respect each of (their) preferences” and didn’t involve wearing a mask.

“Having a conversation with someone while wearing a mask is not something I find productive, especially when other options exist,” Ladapo wrote. “It is important to me to communicate clearly and effectively with people. I can’t do that when half of my face is covered.”

Florida Politics first reported Saturday that Polsky, who is about to start radiation treatment, asked the Surgeon General to leave her office because he refused to wear a mask. The Senator said before going, Ladapo remarked, “Sometimes I try to reason with unreasonable people for fun.”

Weesam Khoury, a Department of Health spokesperson, previously confirmed the meeting but said Ladapo didn’t make the comment.

“I respect all individuals, and I would never knowingly be disrespectful to anyone,” Ladapo said Tuesday.

Ladapo confirmed Polsky’s retelling of the events that he suggested they meet outside. He added that he offered to sit outside of her office in the hallway.

“Unfortunately, she did not consider any of these options to be satisfactory,” he said.

Ladapo was meeting with senators, who are supposed to confirm his appointment after DeSantis named him Surgeon General last month. However, Ladapo’s dust-up with Polsky may complicate his confirmation process.

Senate President Wilton Simpson sent a memo to all members and Senate staff calling the incident “disappointing” and said that “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,” the Republican leader wrote. “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’s statement did not include an apology to Polsky. However, he did extend his sympathies for her diagnosis.

“I am genuinely saddened by Senator Polsky’s recent diagnosis of breast cancer, and I pray for her and her family and wish them God’s blessings and strength,” he said.

“As Surgeon General of Florida, Floridians can count on me to lead with and communicate truthfully about data and scientific evidence. I have demonstrated these qualities consistently during my career as a clinician and university researcher.”

DeSantis announced Ladapo as the state’s new Surgeon General and head of the Florida Department of Health in mid-September, touting the associate professor from UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine as having “a superb background” and “bringing a superb intellect.”

In a Sept. 16 opinion article for The Wall Street Journal, Ladapo decried “a zealous pursuit of public mask-wearing,” which he said, “has had, at best, a modest effect on viral transmissions.”

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.


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