ST. PETERSBURG — Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order Monday immediately suspending local government pandemic-related restrictions such as mask mandates, in his latest action to speed Florida’s return to normalcy from the coronavirus.
During a news conference at St. Petersburg’s The Big Catch at Salt Creek, a restaurant south of downtown, DeSantis said ending local restrictions was the “evidence-based thing to do” considering the availability of COVID-19 vaccines.
The Department of Education later clarified that the order does not apply to schools.
“I think folks that are saying that they need to be policing people at this point, if you’re saying that, you really are saying you don’t believe in the vaccines, you don’t believe in the data, you don’t believe in the science,” DeSantis said.
He said the state’s pandemic emergency is over, even though last week he extended the state’s emergency declaration for another 60 days.
Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health at the University of South Florida, said it is certainly good that deaths from coronavirus have gone down thanks to the vaccines and improved treatment, but said the continued risk of infection is still serious and warrants continued safety measures like masks and social distancing where appropriate.
“There’s a risk of this thing mutating into something that could be less affected by the vaccines, and then we run into this awful cycle again,” Wolfson said. “Until we get more people vaccinated, we remain in dangerous territory.”
DeSantis on Monday separately signed Senate Bill 2006, passed by lawmakers last week that gives the governor the ability to override local emergency orders. That bill does not take effect until July 1. DeSantis signed an executive order immediately suspending pandemic-related local restrictions through June, as well as one that invalidates all remaining local emergency COVID-19 orders that are still in place after July 1.
DeSantis said the law is meant to ensure that officials in Florida, including the governor, don’t inappropriately “seize power” and enact strict regulations like those in some parts of the country.
“You look around and there have been areas that have been under the yoke of some serious restrictions and lockdowns for months and months and months on end,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis previously waived pandemic-related fines against individuals and businesses, effectively rendering some county and city restrictions toothless.
Monday’s announcement of the order left local officials scrambling Monday to understand the latest change. Despite the morning announcement and signing, the text and details of the executive order were not made available until late afternoon.
DeSantis’ announcement came a day before U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, a Democrat and former Florida governor, is widely expected to announce a run for governor during an event, also in St. Petersburg.
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In a phone interview, Crist said DeSantis’ decision to announce the executive order and do the bill signing in St. Petersburg may be a signal that “perhaps he’s a little concerned about what we may talk about tomorrow.”
Crist blasted DeSantis in a statement Monday, saying he “failed to lead during the pandemic, leaving local officials as the last line of defense against the pandemic, forcing them to make the hard decisions to save lives.”
DeSantis signed the bill and the executive order Monday in front of a backdrop of idling boats and leaping fish and flanked by House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and several local business owners and other politicians.
Several restaurant and bar owners in Pinellas County who attended Monday’s announcement cheered DeSantis’ decision to step in against local emergency orders.
“It’s music to my ears,” said Mark Ferguson, owner of Ferg’s in downtown St. Petersburg. He said his bar has gotten five citations for violating mask mandates, four of which are outstanding.
Jon LaBudde, a partner in The Big Catch, said he felt that local governments have abused their emergency powers. He said enforcement of mask mandates felt selective, and said the potential for a business to lose afterhours liquor permits or other permits was troubling.
“Giving fines to businesses that are struggling doesn’t make sense,” said.
But some local government officials expressed dismay over the decision.
“To say the least I’m disappointed in the governor’s decision because we’ve been really successful in helping people stay safe,” said Hillsborough Commissioner Kimberly Overman, the commission’s leading advocate for mandatory facial coverings.
Hillsborough’s emergency order includes the requirement that people inside businesses wear face masks when social distancing isn’t possible. It also prohibited gatherings on dance floors, eating at bars or eating while standing inside bars or restaurants.
“The message is ‘If you haven’t gotten a vaccination yet, you need to hurry up and go get one.’ It’s a way we can help people to protect themselves,” Overman said.
Reaction was swift and mostly critical from St. Petersburg officials, with opinions falling along party lines.
Democrat Mayor Rick Kriseman tweeted that cities like St. Petersburg, Tampa, Orlando, Miami and Miami Beach “saved Florida and the governor’s behind throughout this pandemic.”
“Can you imagine if each city had been led by Ron DeSantis? How many lives would have been lost? What would our economy look like today?” he asked in the tweet.
During his own news conference Monday afternoon — also held at The Big Catch — Kriseman said he expects the new legislation to face a legal challenge and questioned its constitutionality. Using a line he’s repeated, he called Republicans in Tallahassee — whom Kriseman said often rail against mandates from Washington — hypocrites for imposing yet another local government preemption.
Council member Robert Blackmon, one of the two Republicans on the City Council and who last month sought to build consensus around ending the city’s state of emergency and stripping Kriseman of his emergency authority, was in attendance at the governor’s announcement. He said he’s a “home rule guy,” meaning he objects to state preemption over local matters, but in this case, he supports the move.
“We and other municipalities were taking advantage, and certainly Mayor Kriseman was taking advantage, and he wanted to maintain unilateral control,” he said.
DeSantis said the executive orders he signed Monday apply only to local government-mandated orders, not mask requirements or social distancing policies enforced by businesses.
“In terms of what a supermarket or some of them choose to do, a Disney theme park, this does not deal with that one way or another,” he said. “It’s simply emergency orders and emergency penalties on individual businesses.”
The executive order states that “no county or municipality may renew or enact an emergency order or ordinance, using a local state of emergency ... that imposes restrictions or mandates upon businesses or individuals due to the COVID-19 emergency.”
The order does not make any mention of school district policies, though officials later clarified that it doesn’t affect schools. Many school districts have ongoing mask mandates that are set to expire after classes end in late May or early June.
Pinellas County attorney Jewel White said Monday she could not immediately comment on how DeSantis’ announcement would affect the county’s three pandemic-related actions, including an ordinance requiring that people wear face coverings in most indoor public places except while eating and drinking.
“Once we are able to read it and dig into it, we’ll be able to see how it impacts the various things we have in play right now,” she said.
The Pinellas County Commission was scheduled to vote on the fate of its mask mandate on May 11, and several commissioners hinted at their plans to suggest the lifting of the restrictions take effect in June.
By then, officials expect at least 50 percent of the county to be vaccinated and students will be getting out of school for the summer.
Commissioners urged caution because the county’s seven-day average positivity is still hovering above 3 percent, the baseline a taskforce of Tampa Bay medical professionals recommended to remove mask requirements.
“I don’t think we are ready because we are still not at 3 percent or under in our infection rate,” Commissioner Rene Flowers said. “Gov. DeSantis and other registered Republicans always talk about less government, they always talk about less intrusion but here we are with this that impedes on the ability for municipalities and counties to be able to operate for the betterment of its communities.”
The bill DeSantis signed Monday is intended to update the state’s emergency powers. The measure would make it more difficult for local governments to respond to public emergencies by requiring their emergency orders to be narrowly tailored and extended only in seven-day increments for a total of 42 days and gives the governor to invalidate an emergency order. Currently, such orders can be extended indefinitely.
It also makes permanent an executive order DeSantis signed earlier this month: It prohibits businesses, schools and government agencies from requiring people to show documentation certifying COVID-19 vaccinations or post-infection recovery before gaining entry.
“You have a right to participate in society ... without having to divulge this type of information,” DeSantis said Monday.
Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, chair of the Pandemics & Public Emergencies Committee, said Monday that the legislation “balances safety and your personal liberties.” He said the legislation ensures Florida is planning for the next government health emergency.
The bill passed along party lines Thursday night, the second-to-last day of this year’s legislative session.
“We were paying attention during the pandemic about what went right and wrong,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said Monday. He said there needs to be a check on the power on emergency orders, including by the governor (although DeSantis said Monday that he’d used his power “much more judiciously.”)
The Florida Capitol, which also houses the governor’s office, was largely closed to visitors throughout the pandemic, including during this year’s legislative session, even as schools and businesses have reopened. On Monday, the Florida Senate announced the Capitol will fully reopen beginning Friday.
The global pandemic exposed how unprepared Florida was for a public health emergency. Although appropriations are the constitutional prerogative of the Legislature, the governor controlled most of the emergency funding during the pandemic with no legislative authority or oversight. The bill attempts to address that by imposing additional oversight while also giving the governor additional authority and also allowing him to override local orders if they are determined to “unnecessarily restrict individual rights or liberties.”
Among other aspects of the bill, state agencies would be required to develop by the end of 2022 public health emergency plans and the Division of Emergency Management would have to stockpile personal protective equipment.
Tampa Bay Times staff writers Josh Solomon, C.T. Bowen, Tracey McManus, Barbara Behrendt, Jeffrey S. Solochek and Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.