As COVID-19 cases and deaths surged last summer amid the worst pandemic in a century, Gov. Ron DeSantis insisted that Florida did not need a statewide mask mandate.

Mask mandates — like many other powers — were left up to cities and counties, where elected local leaders could assess conditions close to them and do what’s best for the constituents who elected them.

After all, as Thomas Jefferson, one of our nation’s founders said, “The government closest to the people serves the people best.”

Thus, as Republicans, supposedly liberty-loving conservatives, run this year’s legislative session, it is striking how much freedom they intend to strip from the local “people” who know better.

In three executive orders, DeSantis has devolved on masks, first allowing local mask ordinances, then telling governments they could not immediately collect fines for violations, now writing off those fines.

The last we heard, Republicans were the party opposed to executive orders — at least when President Joe Biden was issuing them. Are executive orders that usurp the power of the legislative branch any better when one party issues them vs. another?

Masks are just the latest effort by GOP legislators to strip local governments of home rule.

In mid-March, John Kennedy reported on DeSantis’ efforts, noted in his state of the state speech, to “reform” emergency powers of local government.

The Legislature should tread carefully, for, as Indian River County Administrator Jason Brown said, “(reform) could negatively impact our ability to respond to emergencies such as hurricanes or natural disasters or pandemics.”

As history has shown, we don’t want federal or state bureaucrats calling the shots when tragedy strikes our community. We need their support, not micromanagement from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Some legislators seem to think they know better than locals when it comes to managing our ports, enforcing building design and allowing businesses to operate in homes.

There’s the ongoing vacation rental issue, where legislators, lobbied by such national corporations as Airbnb, want to forbid local governments from passing and enforcing laws to protect homeowners who don’t want to live next to glorified boardinghouses.

Perhaps the most hypocritical proposed legislation this year relates to elections.

Since November, Republicans, including DeSantis, have praised Florida for running top-notch elections. Now they want to make it tougher to vote, telling local supervisors how to do their jobs even better?

There have been proposals to limit or eliminate drop boxes for mail-in or absentee voting. Many people trust those more than the mail. Limiting drop boxes to one at the supervisor of elections office might work in smaller counties. In larger or more dense counties, folks shouldn’t have to drive an hour or more to drop off their ballots.

Does the Legislature really want to mess with the 4.8 million voters the state Division of Elections said cast mail-in ballots in the 2020 general election — about 43.5% of the 11 million voting Floridians?

If Florida’s election system worked so well, there’s no need to dramatically change it.

DeSantis and legislators must be consistent. They, wisely, want to be left alone by Washington. So leave those governments closest to the people alone, too. If they need the state’s help, they’ll ask.

— Treasure Coast Newspapers