Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suspending all local COVID-19 emergency orders by executive order on Monday, while signing a law that restricts what both governors and mayors can do during pandemics.
“I think that’s the evidence-based thing to do,” DeSantis said at a news conference in St. Petersburg. “I think folks that are saying they need to be policing people at this point, if you’re saying that, then you’re really saying you don’t believe in the vaccines.”
According to SB 2006, which DeSantis signed, any emergency orders could only last as long as 42 days. It also gives the governor the authority to overrule cities and counties at any time, and city and county commissions the power to overrule mayors.
The law grants the Legislature power to overrule any emergency mandates or restrictions by the governor, which DeSantis implied was to prevent future Democratic governors from issuing restrictions Republican Legislatures don’t like.
“I think the Legislature looked and said, ‘Well, okay, what if we were in a California situation?’” DeSantis said, referring to Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has continued many of the state’s COVID restrictions. “What would the Legislature’s ability to be? And so they put safeguards for the people of Florida.’’
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said the law, as well as Monday’s order, will “handcuff local governments and their ability to respond.”
“The Executive Order he just signed to is just so hypocritical to the so-called values of the party of small government,” Eskamani said. “It was local governments that led the way in protecting their people and putting into play standards that helped to stop the spread of COVID-19 … and holding businesses accountable who were not following the best procedures. And it really is so important that every government agency at every level work together to solve these problems, not continue to demonize [local] governments.”
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman blasted DeSantis on Twitter, writing, “To be clear, cities like St. Pete, Tampa, Orlando, Miami and Miami Beach saved Florida and the governor’s behind throughout this pandemic. Can you imagine if each city had been led by Ron DeSantis? How many lives would have been lost? What would our economy look like today?”
The bill, which takes effect on July 1, would also ban businesses from requiring so-called “vaccination passports,” putting into law DeSantis’s executive order from last month. The law forbids businesses from requiring proof of vaccination against COVID for entrance.
But businesses could still require masks, DeSantis added, saying it wouldn’t affect mask requirements “in terms of what a supermarket (chooses) to do, or a Disney theme park.”
Across Central Florida counties have enacted emergency orders mandating face masks and social distancing when possible. Last week Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings laid out a plan to phase out the various restrictions tied to how quickly his county was vaccinated.
Under the Orange County order, residents are urged to avoid large groups and to stay three feet away from others. People are also required to wear masks indoors if that place is open to the public. Employees that work within three feet of others also must wear a covering.
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said Monday he hadn’t seen DeSantis’ executive order and did not want to comment. But, he added, “I would just suggest that’s really no way to run the state of Florida is to make announcements and not give clarity to the announcements.”
Like Demings, Lee Constantine, the chairman of the Seminole County Board of County Commissioners, said he hasn’t seen the executive order, nor does he know anybody who has.
“I think everybody would have liked to have a little bit of a heads up. Nobody that I know of in this area got a heads up, so we’ve all been scrambling today,” said Constatine, a Republican who voted with a majority last week to extend the county’s mandate. “The anti-mask folks are certainly overjoyed. The governor has made a decision, and he’s well within his right to make that decision. And for all of our sakes, I hope he’s right.”
In the meantime, Constantine said county staffers will continue wearing face coverings at work, but workers won’t be directing the public to do so when entering county facilities.
“Let’s just hope the governor is right. That’s about all we can do, right?”
Monday’s order suspending local restrictions was ultimately released just after 5 p.m. The text specifically criticizes “a select number of local governments (which) continue to impose mandates and business restrictions, without proper consideration of improving conditions and with no end in sight.”
The order essentially declares the worst of the pandemic crisis is past and cites “the tremendous steps the State has taken to protect Florida’s most vulnerable populations and rapidly offer vaccines to every eligible Floridian who desires one” as the reason why local governments should not be allowed to continue any restrictions.
It will serve as a stop-gap measure until the new law fully takes effect on July 1, DeSantis said, and comes after he already waived all fines on individuals and businesses, essentially neutering any punishment for violating city and county restrictions.
“We are no longer in a state of emergency,” DeSantis said, despite him renewing the state’s emergency declaration for another 60 days on April 27, which allows Florida to continue drawing down funds from the federal government.
The new law states that it was “the intent of the Legislature to minimize the negative effects of an extended emergency, such as a pandemic or another public health emergency.”
Any emergency order issued by a city or county has to be “limited in duration, applicability, and scope in order to reduce any infringement on individual rights or liberties to the greatest extent possible,” it states.
Any such order would automatically expire after seven days and would have to be extended by city or county commissions every week for 42 days. At any time, the governor can invalidate any local order.
The law could potentially create a situation like that in Michigan, where Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s attempts at increased COVID-19 restrictions have largely been overruled by the GOP-led Legislature.
However, DeSantis added, “They didn’t need to use these checks against me, because I was using this (power) much more judiciously.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new recommendations last month that masks weren’t needed in most outdoor situations other than in crowded events such as concerts and parades. It also still recommends mask-wearing indoors.
But DeSantis, who opposed mask mandates as far back as last summer, said it was now “anti-vaccine” to imply further mask mandates were necessary.
And while many health experts have warned that vaccine hesitancy could prevent the country from reaching herd immunity, DeSantis said the vaccines were “widespread” enough that restrictions weren’t needed.
”What’s the evidence basis to force somebody to wear a mask or any of these restrictions?” he said.
In South Florida, Broward County Mayor Steve Geller warned DeSantis that his order may backfire and said he was exploring legal options to keep its mask mandate.
“The governor has said the COVID crisis is over in Florida and there are no longer any restrictions of any type whatsoever,” Geller said. “I hope the virus obeys his order.”
(South Florida Sun Sentinel reporter Lisa J. Huriash contributed to this report.)