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What we know about DeSantis’ executive order suspending local COVID-19 restrictions

He issued an executive order Monday in the latest push to return the state to pre-pandemic normalcy. Here’s what the order means for you.
Governor Ron Desantis speaks in St. Petersburg, Monday, May 3, 2021 in St. Petersburg.
Governor Ron Desantis speaks in St. Petersburg, Monday, May 3, 2021 in St. Petersburg. [ ALLISON ROSS | Times ]
Published May 4
Updated May 4

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday issued an executive order immediately suspending county- or city-ordered mask mandates and other pandemic-related restrictions.

The announcement left local officials scrambling and residents wondering exactly what would change as a result.

Related: DeSantis signs bill banning vaccine passports, suspends local pandemic restrictions

What does the order say?

Executive order 21-102 says that all local COVID-19 restrictions and mandates on individuals and businesses are immediately suspended. It says 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 is intended to supersede any local orders requiring masks or limiting hours or capacity at bars and restaurants, said Andrea Zelman, deputy attorney for the city of Tampa.

A related executive order, also issued Monday, invalidates any remaining emergency orders still in place on July 1 that were “issued by a political subdivision due to the COVID-19 emergency which restricts the rights or liberties of individuals or their businesses.”

What does this mean for local mask ordinances and other requirements?

In general, the order does away with county and city governments’ emergency mask orders and other pandemic-related restrictions.

Pinellas County announced Tuesday that it was rescinding a county ordinance that required people to wear face coverings in most indoor public places except while eating and drinking. It also said it was rescinding an order requiring organizations to provide safety plans for large events.

Tampa interpreted the governor’s executive order to mean that, effective Monday, “our local face covering order is no longer in effect,” Zelman said.

DeSantis had previously waived pandemic-related fines against individuals and businesses from March 1, 2020, through March 10, 2021, effectively rendering some county and city restrictions toothless. DeSantis said Monday that, at the next state clemency board hearing, any outstanding fines on individuals or businesses will be waived, too.

Related: Pinellas rescinds mask mandate after DeSantis executive order

Can businesses still require social distancing and masks?

Yes. DeSantis made clear Monday that the executive orders apply only to local government-mandated orders, not mask requirements or social distancing policies enforced by businesses.

That means a restaurant or store can still require patrons to wear face coverings or follow other safety procedures if it wants to do so.

“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.”

Can schools still require masks?

Yes.

The Florida Department of Education issued a clarification late Monday following confusion from parents and school officials, saying DeSantis’ order “only impacts city and county governments, and does NOT impact school districts and individual schools.” It noted that the order only impacts orders or ordinances restricting individuals or businesses that were “adopted through emergency enactment.”

The Pinellas County School District said Tuesday it will rescind its mask mandate effective 5 p.m. June 9, which is the last day of school for students. Pasco’s school district also plans to rescind its mask order at the end of the school year. The Hillsborough district also sent a message to parents advising it would keep its protocols in place through the end of the school year, including the use of facial coverings for students and staff while on campus.

Related: DeSantis order ending local mask rules does not apply to schools

Do I have to wear a mask at other government buildings?

It’s not yet clear whether the governor’s executive order impacts any limitations that government agencies can impose on visitors to their own buildings.

Zelman, with the city of Tampa, said her office was still looking into whether the city can require masks on its own premises.

“We can’t order anyone else to require masks, but it’s not crystal clear to us yet whether we could require them within certain parts of city buildings,” Zelman said. She said she expects to have an answer soon.

A spokeswoman with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles said Tuesday morning that her office would follow up soon about whether driver’s license offices and others would continue to require masks. On Tuesday morning, the department’s website still said customers must wear facial coverings and would have their temperature taken before entering the office, with people with a fever not permitted to enter; by the afternoon, that language appeared to have been removed.

The Florida Capitol, which had been largely closed to the public for more than a year — including during this year’s legislative session — will fully reopen ahead of a special session on gambling, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, announced Monday at the same event where DeSantis announced the executive order.

The Capitol is expected to reopen Friday, according to a memo from Simpson’s office. That memo said weekly coronavirus testing would no longer be required and masks would be optional.

Related: Florida Capitol set to open after 14 months of being closed

The executive order doesn’t impact local courthouses, which currently requires masks. Rules and procedures around the virus are set by the Florida Supreme Court and chief judges of the state’s 20 judicial circuits.

Why is this order being issued now?

DeSantis has pushed for months to reopen the state and return to pre-pandemic normalcy. On Monday, he declared the state’s pandemic emergency to be over, citing the availability of coronavirus vaccines, and said ending pandemic-related restrictions was the “evidence-based thing to do.” (Florida is still under an emergency order; DeSantis last week extended the state’s emergency declaration for another 60 days.)

Monday’s executive order points to DeSantis’ mindset, noting that Florida now has enough COVID-19 vaccines for any eligible resident who wants one and stating that “a select number of local governments continue to impose mandates and business restrictions, without proper consideration of improving conditions and with no end in sight.”

The signing of the executive order was also done at the same time DeSantis signed Senate Bill 2006 into law. That legislation, which goes into effect July 1, is intended to update the state’s emergency powers, including limiting local governments to extend most emergency orders only in seven-day increments for a total of 42 days and giving the governor the ability to override local emergency orders.

The legislation also makes permanent DeSantis’ ban on so-called “vaccine passports” by prohibiting businesses, schools and government agencies from requiring people to show documentation of COVID-19 vaccinations.

Florida has at least partially vaccinated nearly 9 million people, or roughly half of the eligible population, and has seen coronavirus cases and deaths drop among its older residents, who are more likely to have been vaccinated.

But experts have warned that coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths are continuing and the vaccination rate is slowing, while fewer people appear to be adhering to mask and social distancing recommendations. Worries about mutated strains of the virus add more pressure to the situation.

Florida is slightly below the nationwide average in percent of people vaccinated, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Related: How Florida ranks in administering the coronavirus vaccines

On Monday, the state reported more than 3,000 new coronavirus cases and 41 more deaths.

Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Kathryn Varn contributed to this report.

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