After a relatively strong start in responding to the coronavirus crisis, Gov. Ron DeSantis has made a mess. His two statewide stay-at-home orders that took effect today are confusing local officials and residents. His verbal explanations about his intent are in conflict with his written orders. And his pandering to the Republican Party’s religious right jeopardizes public safety. While the general message to Floridians remains stay at home as much as possible, the governor needs to get on the same page with local government officials, law enforcement and the public about the specifics. They need clarity, not confusion.
DeSantis signed a first statewide order Wednesday after weeks of public pressure and of deferring to local governments. The order limits the movement and interactions of Floridians outside their homes to “essential” services and activities. It allows a range of industries the federal government deems as vital - such as hospitals, energy plants and transportation systems - to continue to operate. The governor also borrowed language from Miami-Dade County’s emergency order, allowing dozens of businesses - from grocery and hardware stores to builders and landscapers - to be considered essential and remain open statewide.
The first order announced at a news conference is clunky, because it addresses what individuals are allowed to do rather than directly ordering nonessential businesses to close. But the intent was clear, and local governments were responding. For example, the Pinellas County Commission on Thursday morning ordered all non-essential businesses to close and essential businesses to follow social distancing rules. The understandable assumption by local government officials across Florida was that the governor set minimum requirements, and they could add further restrictions.
Yet it turned out that the governor quietly signed a second executive order Wednesday evening. First reported by the Tampa Bay Times, that second order says the governor’s actions "supercede any conflicting official action or order issued by local officials in response to COVID-19.'' That understandably infuriated local officials across Florida who believed the governor tied their hands. To add further confusion, DeSantis contradicted the clear meaning of his own order at a news conference Thursday afternoon.
"If (local governments) want to do more, they can do more in certain situations,'' DeSantis said.
So what are the rules? County officials in Pinellas and elsewhere were still sorting it out Friday. The governor’s general counsel wrote to two South Florida mayors Friday morning, "The Governor’s Order does not affect whether a local authority may close a business (or in other words, decide if a business in non-essential).'' And St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman reasonably tweeted: "The bottom line: Just stay home except for essentials and essential fresh air and exercise.''
There remains some confusion. For example, Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister enforced the county’s ban on gatherings of more than 10 people by arresting the pastor of an area church this week who held jam-packed services Sunday. Chronister tried to reason with church officials beforehand and demonstrated integrity and common sense by enforcing the county order. Under DeSantis’ orders, it appears the sheriff could not take that action again, and the governor made clear he doesn’t want churches to be closed. Yet DeSantis verbally said churches should practice social distancing and work with local officials to resolve any issues -- which is exactly what Chronister tried to do before he was forced to act. Friday morning, Hillsborough County urged local religious leaders to avoid large gatherings or practice social distancing at weekend services.
DeSantis needs to rewrite his executive orders and align them with the intentions he has verbally expressed. Verbal assurances don’t carry the same weight. Local governments should be able to force nonessential businesses to close until April 30. They should be able to require essential businesses and churches to practice social distancing. "Senior citizens'' in the governor’s order should be defined, and they cannot be forced to stay at home without exception. These times are anxious enough, and Floridians deserve clearer direction from the governor.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news