TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida clemency board announced Wednesday that it would wipe out fines imposed on people or businesses for violating COVID-19-related ordinances.
Hours later, DeSantis issued an executive order stating that the waiver applied to fines imposed by local governments from March 1 of last year to Wednesday. Anyone disputing the fines need only refer to the executive order as a defense from paying them, it said.
DeSantis’ action Wednesday, which was not on the agenda, appeared to catch people off guard and left local and county officials scratching their heads. It wasn’t clear whether the board had the authority to make such a motion.
His action came immediately after approving major changes to the state’s clemency process. Moving at a break-neck pace throughout the meeting, DeSantis said he was making a motion to wipe out “COVID-19 related fines.”
“As we’ve seen, there have been unprecedented restrictions imposed on people, particularly on the local government level, on both individuals and businesses,” DeSantis said.
“Many of these restrictions, I think, have been ineffective, and I think they’ve unfairly penalized people,” he added.
He then quickly made a motion for the “remission” of those fines, which was immediately approved by the two other Republicans on the clemency board, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat, voted against it.
The entire topic lasted 41 seconds, with no discussion or debate, and was yet another example of the abrupt way DeSantis has governed during the pandemic, repeatedly announcing major actions that are only followed hours later with a vague or confusing executive order.
It wasn’t clear Wednesday whether the clemency board had the authority to wipe out municipal fines for people who weren’t seeking clemency, or whether the action was even necessary. In September, DeSantis ordered cities and counties to stop collecting fines and penalties on individuals for violating mask ordinances. Hours later, DeSantis issued an executive order outlining the plan.
DeSantis initially allowed cities and counties to police the pandemic as they saw fit, but reversed course last fall. Since then, he’s repeatedly derided local ordinances.
City and county officials in Tampa Bay said Wednesday said they had not seen the order, with some expressing frustration with DeSantis’ efforts to undermine local attempts to combat the pandemic.
“It is worth noting that local actions and protocols have helped to keep Floridians safe and healthy, and Ron DeSantis has benefitted from that,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said in a statement. “Time and again, in the absence of state leadership and a coherent strategy, cities like St. Petersburg have had to take the lead. We will continue to do so as best we can.”
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The city said it has issued 267 municipal ordinance violations.
In Tampa, where the city has avoided fines on individuals, Mayor Jane Castor said she had not seen the order. But she doubted it would affect one of the other tools the city has used to enforce COVID-19 restrictions: suspending alcohol beverage permits for a few bars and nightclubs.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman, the commission’s leading advocate for face mask requirements during the pandemic, said she was not familiar with the Cabinet’s action.
“If what they (Cabinet) is trying to do is help businesses get through, I understand that. But, unfortunately money is the only thing that matters to some individuals and so fines are one way to wake people up,” Overman said. “I don’t like them more than anybody else.”
Times staff writers CT Bowen and Charlie Frago contributed to this report.
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