Tampa Bay’s government leaders still confused on how to enforce Gov. DeSantis’ order

Officials in Pinellas and Hillsborough were blindsided when Gov. Ron DeSantis quitely issued a second executive order.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen during a news conference Wednesday, April 1, 2020.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen during a news conference Wednesday, April 1, 2020. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published April 2, 2020

Top leaders in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties remained confused Thursday over how to enforce Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order to shut down the state Friday for 30 days.

For weeks, DeSantis resisted a statewide stay-home order, but his new directive appeared to undermine measures already enacted last week on both sides of the bay to limit people from gathering and moving around town.

In Pinellas, leaders complained that the governor’s vague order told government officials across the state to follow a Miami-Dade order when determining which businesses must close, while Hillsborough took notice of DeSantis’ decision to add religious services to the list of “essential activities” Floridians are now allowed to do when outside of their homes.

“My reaction to the governor’s order when I read it was that I could not believe he did that, to be up front about it,“ said Les Miller, chairman of both the Hillsborough County Commission and the county’s Emergency Policy Group. "I just can’t understand for the life of me why he did that.”

Pinellas commissioner Charlie Justice accused DeSantis of playing politics with the executive order in order to say he didn’t shutter any businesses. The commission expects residents and business owners to blame the county for the closures.

Officials in both counties railed over how the executive order made no mention of guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requirement to maintain a 6-foot distance between people. Orders enacted last week in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties each required social distancing and prevented gathering in groups of 10 or more.

When Pinellas officials met Thursday morning, they didn’t know that DeSantis had issued an amended order on Wednesday evening to override all local emergency orders. Without knowing that information, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told officials that the county’s more restrictive order would carry more weight.

After finding out about the second order, Pinellas Commission Chair Pat Gerard said the county’s legal team was deciphering it and trying to determine how it applied, adding: “This is just a crazy world.”

Hillsborough leaders knew about the second order when they met Thursday afternoon.

The decision to allow religious services to continue during the statewide shut down is a major outlier over policies enacted in both counties. The language used in the order places no limit on the number of people that can gather in sanctuary and considers a religious service to be an “essential activity."

“I mean, it makes no sense,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said. “The one thing that has been shown to flatten the curve is distancing and separation … and from what I see now that curve in the state of Florida and in Hillsborough County is not going to be flattened any time soon.”

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The governor’s order said 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 order, which has been in place for weeks.

Those lists include obvious essential services like hospitals, police and fire departments and grocery stores, but also hardware stores, pet supply stores, gun and ammo stores and laundromats. It also includes people who work in vital infrastructure industries like energy, telecommunication, water, transportation and defense.

In Pasco County, Sheriff Chris Nocco relayed a similar message in a video to residents. People do not need to carry documentation on where they are heading, he said. And, he urged residents to read the governor’s order for themselves instead of calling the Sheriff’s Office for clarification. "Use your common sense,'' Nocco said.

In Hernando County, the Executive Policy Group closed all public access to library pick ups and drop offs since libraries were already closed. They also shuttered parks, but not boat ramps because DeSantis classified them as essential services. On a video announcement, Sheriff Al Nienhuis said the county has been doing what was in the governor’s order and that there will be no roadblocks or stopping people to see where they’re going.

Neither of those counties had issued previous local stay-at-home orders, so there wasn’t anything in place that would have been disparate to DeSantis’ order.

As the shutdown loomed closer, officials in Pinellas and Hillsborough said small-business owners bombarded them with phone calls seeking guidance on whether they can remain open in the coming weeks.

The order also says all senior citizens and individuals with a “significant underlying medical condition” must remain at home during the 30 days. The governor’s office remained silent and didn’t provide guidance on who falls into the category of a senior citizen. Officials raised concerns about whether elderly residents could legally grocery shop, pick up medicine from pharmacies or perform other tasks outside their home.

Gualtieri said deputies and police will not stop motorists to question their ages and destinations. He urged residents to do the“right thing” if they have to leave their homes. He cited the confusion in the governor’s order and asked how it would apply to a 75-year-old doctor who has to leave home for work.

“It does not carve out any exceptions," Gualtieri said about the order. “It does not define a senior. This is not done with clarity."

Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt and C.T Bowen contributed to this report.

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