Hours after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order Wednesday, he quietly signed another one that appeared to override restrictions put in place by local governments to halt the spread of coronavirus.
However, DeSantis on Thursday said the amendment he signed does the reverse, instigating another round of confusion over the intent of his directives.
The second order, first reported by the Tampa Bay Times, said that new state guidelines taking effect Friday morning "supersede any conflicting official action or order issued by local officials in response to COVID-19.” It seemed to suggest that counties and cities could not place limitations that would be more strict than the statewide guidelines.
And that’s how local officials interpreted it.
But then DeSantis said late Thursday that this was not the case. “If (local governments) want to do more, they can do more in certain situations,” he told reporters after the Times story published. His office didn’t respond to multiple requests for clarification.
DeSantis implied that the intention of his second directive was to block local governments from shuttering churches and synagogues during the outbreak. Under DeSantis’ original order, religious services are considered an “essential activity.”
“I don’t know that (governments) would have the authority, quite frankly, to close a religious (institution),” DeSantis said. “The Constitution doesn’t get suspended here.”
If that’s the case, it would mean that Hillsborough County cannot enforce its emergency measure to shut down houses of worship, a rule that drew national attention and the ire of the local Republican Party. The county imposed it after Tampa megachurch The River of Tampa Bay held two Sunday services, leading to the arrest of pastor Rodney Howard-Browne.
DeSantis issued the second order to “provide clarity,” the document says. It did anything but.
Under the prior order, cities and counties could not allow activities that the state prohibited but they could issue tougher stay-at-home orders. DeSantis said Thursday that’s still the case, despite signing a new directive that seems to say the opposite.
The discreet circumstances under which the second order materialized has only added to the confusion. DeSantis signed it Wednesday at 6:36 p.m. — just five hours after he issued his statewide stay-at-home order. Unlike that first action — which DeSantis unveiled at a well-attended press conference that aired on the state’s cable channel and was sent out in a news release from his office — there was no announcement about the signing of the second order or a subsequent news release.
Instead, it was quietly added to the governor’s website just after the state reported the 100th coronavirus-related death in Florida.
For weeks, DeSantis, a Republican, resisted calls from local leaders, many of them Democrats, to issue a statewide stay-at-home order. He insisted that cities and counties knew best how to handle the response.
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“We’ve been willing to work with any of the local communities, but I think it’s been a surgical approach," DeSantis said on March 24. "It’s been an approach that’s been in consultation with these folks.”
Local government officials expressed outrage that DeSantis is now overriding their decisions. In the absence of state direction, many counties and cities passed local stay-at-home orders that closely adhered to advice from public health experts on how to halt the spread of the virus.
Under the order DeSantis signed Wednesday, Floridians can’t leave their home unless it’s to obtain or provide essential services.
Essential services includes health care workers, law enforcement and grocery stores, among many, many others. DeSantis’ orders also classified gun and ammo shops, laundromats, hardware stores and pet supply stores as “essential services.”
In a significant deviation from what experts advise, attending church services is considered an “essential activity." DeSantis would also permit many outdoor activities, including golfing, if practiced with social-distancing.
Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren said it’s now unclear whether churches and synagogues can hold large services with “500 people packed shoulder to shoulder.” Howard-Browne, the Tampa pastor, said he would halt Sunday services, but that was before word had spread of DeSantis’ second order.
“This has created a lot of confusion,” Warren said. “For reasons I can’t fathom, the governor is using his power to remove safe guards that Hillsborough County and other counties have put in place to save lives.”
DeSantis on Thursday suggested that elected officials instead work with faith leaders to keep people safe while allowing them to worship, adding that the Easter season is approaching.
“We absolutely ask them to abide by social distancing guidelines,” DeSantis said. “But in times like this, the service they’re performing is going to be very important for people."
Reacting to the governor’s new directive, Hillsborough County Les Miller pleaded with religious leaders to “follow the safe distancing guidelines put out by” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jennifer Tolbert, the director of state health reform at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said keeping churches and synagogues open “could lead to greater exposure." On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence, known for his Evangelical Christian faith, urged Americans to avoid services with more than 10 people.
In a letter to DeSantis, Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp urged the governor to repeal his amended order, pointing to Sacramento, where one-third of all coronavirus cases have been linked to a Pentecostal church.
“This is a perilous action and will likely lead to deaths and hospitalizations,” Kemp wrote.
Many local officials were already scrambling to understand DeSantis’ statewide guidelines before they take effect at midnight. Pinellas County officials passed an order Thursday to close thousands of businesses for 30 days that are not deemed essential in the coronavirus pandemic, though the seven commissioners and other county leaders acknowledged it wasn’t clear what was “essential.”
Part of the confusion comes from how the state order was written. Rather than define define essential services, it defers to guidelines from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Miami-Dade County, where residents have lived under a lockdown for weeks.
While the order does not mandate any business shut down, it severely restricts the movement of employees and customers and many non-essential stores and offices will likely choose to temporarily close. Businesses are encouraged to telework and restaurants to provide food via drive-thru, take out or delivery.
Warren called the governor’s order “so weak and spineless I thought it was an April Fool’s joke.”
Pinellas Commissioner Charlie Justice accused DeSantis of playing semantics with the order. Each commissioner, he said, is going to be flooded with questions because the order is so vague.
“I feel like he wants to say he didn’t close any businesses," Justice said. “This is what we’re going to get for the next 30 days. This is the governor’s order, not ours.”
Times staff writers Divya Kumar and Mark Puente contributed to this report.
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