Tampa Bay leaders unsure what DeSantis’ order means for local residents

Some said it was “business as usual," and others were awaiting legal guidance.
A usually active 200 block of Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg is eerily quiet at around 9:30 pm on Wednesday night March 18, 2020 as restaurants and bars closed early due to the government mandated operating restrictions including alcohol sales impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic.
A usually active 200 block of Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg is eerily quiet at around 9:30 pm on Wednesday night March 18, 2020 as restaurants and bars closed early due to the government mandated operating restrictions including alcohol sales impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]
Published April 1, 2020|Updated April 2, 2020

Local leaders scrambled Wednesday afternoon to understand the implications of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order to shutdown the state starting Friday morning, many saying they were awaiting advice from their attorneys.

In some ways, the governor’s order appears more restrictive than the local orders. In at least one notable way, the governor’s order is less restrictive. The additional layer of rules means it’s unclear what local provisions may have to change.

“The Governor’s guidance and order is very comprehensive,” wrote Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister in a statement. “We are examining it now.”

One of the most impactful ways in which DeSantis’ order, which goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday morning, differs from the orders passed last week by Hillsborough and Pinellas officials deals with non-essential businesses.

The governor’s order says Floridians “shall limit their movements and personal interactions outside of their home to only those necessary to obtain or provide essential services or conduct essential activities.” Rather than define what services are “essential,” The order references guidelines from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Miami-Dade County’s stay-at-home, which has been in place for weeks.

Miami-Dade’s order states “All non-essential retail and commercial establishments are ordered closed.”

Under those guidelines, essential services include: health care workers, public safety officers and first responders, grocery store employees, agriculture workers, bank employees, gas station and auto repair workers, construction workers and home repair personnel, mail businesses and postal workers, and those who work in manufacturing facilities that support critical supply chains. Gun and ammo stores can remain open.

It also includes people who work in vital infrastructure industries like energy, telecommunication, water, transportation and the defense. Private colleges are allowed to remain open to support online or “distance learning."

Those guidelines put the governor’s order in conflict with local “safer-at-home” orders passed in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The local orders allowed non-essential businesses to operate if they could observe social distancing guidelines.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the governor’s order will close a lot of businesses.

“Our challenge is going to be providing information for people so that they understand what to do and not do," the Sheriff said in a text message. "And the big question is will they actually do it...?”

Other Tampa Bay area officials on Wednesday were still digesting the order, determining to what extend DeSantis’ order would affect local businesses starting Friday. Some were unsure what effect the governor’s order would have on local orders.

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Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton said he was advised those businesses would shutter, but was awaiting more definitive answers. Burton’s counterpart in Hillsborough, Administrator Mike Merrill, said he was awaiting a briefing from county attorneys at Thursday’s Emergency Policy Group meeting.

In St. Petersburg and Clearwater, both of which fall under the Pinellas County order, officials believed the governor’s order would not have a major effect locally.

“Looks like to me we’re business as usual under the previous safer at home order from the county," said Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne. "I didn’t see anything in there that overrode what the county has established.”

St. Petersburg officials said they were awaiting a review from city attorneys to determine what might have to change.

“But there does not appear to be any significant inconsistencies with what is already happening in St. Pete,” officials said on Wednesday.

The governor’s order also carves out a specific exemption for attending religious services. On Monday, Chronister took Tampa megachurch Pastor Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of River at Tampa Bay Church into custody after Howard-Browne held a church service in violation of the county’s order. Howard-Browne, who was released from jail after posting bail, faces charges of unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules

It was unclear Wednesday what affect the governor’s order may have on the prosecution of the pastor.

Horne said the religious exemption shows him that DeSantis “does not want to take on the faith community.”

“We’re giving the faith community a bye,” Horne added. "But the 10 person rule and the six feet makes it virtually impossible to have a worship service.”

Some local officials were glad to see a shutdown order come from Tallahassee, though they wished it had come earlier.

Hillsborough County Commission chairman Les Miller, who is also the chair of the county’s Emergency Policy Group, said he wished the governor had done this sooner. Instead, the delay forced the local governments to act first by issuing orders that may now be superseded by the governor’s.

“I don’t want to slam him for taking too long to do something, Miller said. “It was time that he did it, and hopefully this will ensure that our entire state will be safer at home and abiding by what the order says we should do and what our orders here locally have told citizens to do.”

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman had been calling on DeSantis to issue a statewide order for weeks.

“I’d say better late than never, but being late may have catastrophic consequences for our residents and our health care system,” Kriseman said in a statement. “I am glad he heeded our call for statewide uniformity and urge all residents of our city and state to remain safer at home.”

Times staff writers Tony Marrero, Kirby Wilson, Mark Puente, Kathryn Varn, Charlie Frago and Steve Contorno and Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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