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“You’re violating my personhood,” Florida woman arrested after refusing to wear a mask

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Rafael Olmeda

South Florida Sun Sentinel

A staunch opponent of wearing masks became the latest South Floridian to wind up behind bars over COVID-19 rules when she refused to cover her face inside a West Boca bagel shop, deputies say.

The mask showdown happened Thursday when Cindy Falco-DiCorrado, 62, of Boynton Beach, refused to cover her face inside an Einstein Bros. Bagels at 9795 Glades Road. She shouted at customers and employees about her right to stay mask-free and refused to leave the store, leading deputies to arrest her on a trespassing charge, according to a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office report.

“You are violating my rights!” she said while in front of a store counter, the Sheriff’s Office said. “You are violating the Constitution!”

South Florida still is seeing instances of people railing against masks nearly a year into the pandemic, leading to arrests and citations. Palm Beach County drew the nation’s attention last summer when Falco-DiCorrado and several other anti-mask activists urged elected officials to vote against requiring people to wear face coverings in public.

Groups of anti-maskers also last year have strolled into Target and Walmart stores to rip off their coronavirus masks in protest.

Falco-DiCorrado, who on social media has referred to the COVID-19 crisis as a “scamdemic,” now is invoking a religious exemption to wearing mask. She said, as a minister, she was at the bagel shop with a woman she was counseling. She wasn’t wearing a mask, and another customer started arguing with her about the mask and that’s when the drama began. “I just don’t wear a mask,” she said. “I can’t breathe. It suffocates me.”

Tom Johnson, corporate spokesman for Einstein Bros. Bagels, said Friday that the health and safety of employees and customers is the key concern when it comes to mask-wearing. “Our locations are marked with clearly posted signs requiring customers to wear masks while in our bakeries,” Johnson said. “Customers that are unable to do [that] are able to order their food ahead using our app or delivery through Doordash.”

Falco-DiCorrado spent the night in jail and was released Friday afternoon. “It was an unbelievable horrific experience,” she said, adding that she had “no idea” she could get arrested.

Falco-DiCorrado previously has drawn attention for opposing mask requirements. Last September, she told county commissioners that they weren’t allowed to “mandate anything” when it came to closing businesses to stop the spread of the new coronavirus. Last September, she participated in a protest inside a Fort Lauderdale Target, hollering to shoppers, “Breathe! You’re Americans, breathe!”

As the pandemic began, South Florida governments imposed emergency mask mandates, requiring them to be worn indoors in public places.

Still, people can’t be arrested for not wearing the mask, said Broward County Mayor Steve Geller. But a business owner can request people leave for not following the rules, especially because a business can still be fined for not enforcing the mask mandate. The end result for noncompliance could be an arrest for trespassing, he said.

People can also be fined for not wearing a mask, but requiring people to pay those fines is on hold until Gov. Ron DeSantis lifts an executive order that prohibits that, Geller said.

Others have also been cited. In Plantation, a gym owner is headed to court in February after being arrested for not enforcing the mask mandate.

And still others have successfully avoided wearing masks despite calls for them to put them on. During early voting in October, four voters in Fort Lauderdale stood their ground and refused to wear masks even though everyone else around them at Fort Lauderdale’s Coral Ridge Mall wore a mask to protect against the spread of COVID-19. They were allowed to vote, even as other election offices in South Florida, like Miami-Dade, had made provisions for voters who wouldn’t follow the rules.

Legal experts say anti-maskers may not have much of a case in challenging mask-wearing requirements.

“Yes, they can arrest you,” said Alex Arreaza, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who last year sued the state to force the reopening of bars and pubs in Broward County. The lawsuit is no longer necessary now that bars have reopened, but Arreaza said anti-maskers need to come to terms with the reality of medical and CDC recommendations requiring face coverings. “The notion that this is a conspiracy is not a valid argument anymore.”

Malik Leigh, Pompano Beach attorney who practices in South Florida and handles civil rights and discrimination cases, said he predicted the outcome of a failed Palm Beach County lawsuit on mask restrictions.

“If there is an issue between health and welfare versus someone’s First Amendment rights, the health and welfare will prevail,” he said. “You don’t get to put other people’s health, safety and welfare at risk just to exercise your freedom to be an [expletive].”

He compared the right of a private business to require masks to the same right to require shirts and shoes. “You cannot go into a private business and treat it like it’s your house,” he said. “It’s not your house. If your actions are going to hurt other people, then the state has a compelling interest in stopping you. If you don’t like it, you can argue about it with your cellmate, or your judge.”

Civil rights are not violated unless the business regulations prohibit people in a protected status, such as women, minorities or gays, he said.

Exactly how many South Floridians have been arrested or cited over COVID-19 is unclear. The Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office could not say Friday how many mask-related arrests have happened. After her arrest, Falco-DiCorrado’s court case now is scheduled for Feb. 23.

Chris Nelson, an organizer of anti-mask protests who lives in Fort Lauderdale, said multiple activists have trespass arrests after refusing to wear a mask in other locations.

They plan to protest Falco-DiCorrado’s arrest outside the bagel shop on Saturday afternoon. “We see this as a direct assault on our freedom. That’s why this is so important to us. … We don’t see it as not being a big deal. We see it as a direct assault on our religious liberties.”

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