Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis moved to suspend all remaining COVID-19 restrictions imposed by communities across the state, signing into law on Monday freshly passed legislation giving him sweeping powers to invalidate local emergency measures put in place during the pandemic — including mask mandates, limitations on business operations and the shuttering of schools.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” DeSantis said Monday, “but I think this creates a structure that’s going to be a little bit more respectful, I think, of people’s businesses jobs, schools and personal freedom.”
He said he would sign executive order to begin implementing some of the provisions of the new law, which doesn’t go into effect until July 1.
County Mayor Michelle Coldiron said Monday she was waiting for Monroe County Attorney Bob Shillinger to review the executive order before commenting.
Shillinger was still reviewing the order on Monday but has directed code officers to stop enforcement actions immediately for masks, social distancing and other COVID regulations, he said Monday.
Key West Mayor Teri Johnston criticized DeSantis’ move and said when hurricanes hit the Florida Keys, officials in Tallahassee often don’t know the extent of the storm damage. She said taking power away from local authorities to protect their citizens “absolutely is insane.”
“I don’t even know what to say anymore. It’s just one more power grab from Tallahassee,” she said.
Key West City commissioners are scheduled to revise an existing mask ordinance at their meeting Tuesday, May 4, to reflect updated guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control. Johnston said she will ask City Attorney Shawn Smith whether the mask requirement is legal because it is a city ordinance, not an emergency order that would now be outlawed, according to DeSantis. However, the city’s general emergency order, which gives officials special responsibilities and authority during a pandemic and is renewed every week, could now be in jeopardy, the mayor said.
“We just signed a renewal of our emergency order. I’ve sign one every Sunday morning since the pandemic started,” Johnson said. “Apparently COVID is over in Tallahassee.”
Marathon Mayor Luis Gonzalez had also read news accounts about the governor’s announcements but had not heard anything official when contracted by The Citizen on Monday afternoon.
“We are going to continue to stress that vaccines are important,” Gonzalez said. “Masks should be up to local businesses. People should use what they comfortable with. If that means a mask, then do it.”
Since last Friday, the Florida Department of Health has reported 33 new COVID-19 cases to Monroe County tally, including two more in Sugarloaf Key; nine more in Key West; three more in each Key Largo and Summerland Key; five more in Marathon; six more in Islamorada; and one more in each Tavernier, Little Torch and Ramrod Key.
About 50% of Florida Keys residents have received vaccinations, according to Department of Health.
Some mayors, particularly those aligned with the Democratic Party, decried Republican-led preemptions as a power grab against local government’s ability to control a potential resurgence of the coronavirus but also restrict their ability to respond to future public health emergencies.
“It feels like he’s spiking the ball on the 10-yard line,” said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, whose city is within a county that was among the hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak. “He’s been following political ideology more than science during this whole pandemic.”
“Today, in preempting both local governments AND businesses from keeping their establishments safe, Ron DeSantis decided he cares not about public health, but power,” tweeted St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.
“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?” Kriseman said in another tweet.
The law codifies much of the actions DeSantis had already taken, including preempting local governments from enforcing mask mandates, but it also would give the governor — DeSantis and those after him — broad authority during future public health crises to set aside local edicts that do not conform to those issued by the state.
Keeping such measures in place, the Republican governor said during a news conference, undermines confidence in the coronavirus vaccines.
“Folks that are saying that they need to be policing people at this point,” DeSantis said, “are saying you don’t believe in the vaccines, you don’t believe in the data, you don’t believe in the science.”
Even as DeSantis advertised the move as a way to protect businesses and workers hurt by pandemic-related shutdowns and business restrictions, the new law would also ban businesses from requiring patrons to show proof vaccinations in order to get service.
The ban was already in place under an executive order he signed in late March. That order also barred government entities from issuing so-called “vaccine passports.”
The law also directs state health officials to draft a public health emergency management plan to serve as a template for future outbreaks.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Key West City Commissioners will dive into a packed, 30-item meeting agenda tonight, May 4.
The agenda is slated to cover big items like recommending changing South Roosevelt Boulevard to one lane each way with a center turning lane; an overview of the fiscal year 2021-22 city budget, where budget workshops are starting this week; and a resolution instructing the city manager to work with members of the Frederick Douglass Black Educators Memorial Project to find an appropriate space in Bahama Village for a museum dedicated to honoring former teachers from The Douglass High School. Those teachers educated generations of Black students from 1871 to 1965, when the schools in Key West and Monroe County were finally desegregated.
Other agenda items include whether or not to accept a state grant of almost $522,000 to continue repairs and improvements to the Mallory Square T-Pier, which is used for cruise ship dockings. While the city would have to contribute a $174,000 match to the grant, city officials have been wondering whether to continue improvements to the pier in light of residents’ recent efforts to limit cruise ship size and passenger and crew disembarkations. The T-Pier improvements would allow larger ships to dock in front of the city-owned Mallory Square.
“I’m sure we’ll have a lively conversation on that based on the cruise ship referendum,” Mayor Teri Johnston said on U.S. 1 Radio Monday morning.
Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover is sponsoring the resolution to ask the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), which is slated to fund a repair project on South Roosevelt Boulevard from Bertha Street to the east end of Smathers Beach, to change the design of the project to make the oceanside roadway one way in each direction with a middle lane for turns. That would free up enough space on the four-land boulevard to include bike lanes on each side.
The resolution would rescind a previous roadway design resolution to FDPT that asked for continuation of the four-lane road. The new resolution acknowledges that FDOT is fully funding the project and may decide to continue with the four-lane design.
“We’re spending millions and millions of dollars on, really, an antiquated road. We need to get bicycle lanes on there,” Mayor Johnston said.
Commissioners will also hear a presentation from the U.S. Army Core of Engineers on results to date from a three-year, $3 million federal study assessing flood risks from storms and sea level rise. The study, which looks at the Florida Keys, puts a price tag on estimates to help reduce damage from flooding, which include coastline stabilization through revetments, elevating homes and floodproofing designated commercial buildings.
In Key West, the Army Core of Engineers report says 2,028 homes need to be elevated, 382 commercial buildings need to be floodproofed – which includes installing metal floodgates in doorways – and 12 areas are designated as “critical infrastructure” requiring floodproofing. Critical infrastructures are identified as public safety buildings, roads and utility groundwork.
The estimated price tag for the recommended flood measures in the Keys is $2.7 billion dollars. Key West’s share of that would be approximately $1.1 billion, of which the federal government would pay 65%, leaving city officials to find approximately $404 million to pay the municipal share of the project.
The commission will be held at 5 p.m. Tuesday, May 4, in Key West City Hall, 1300 White St. Interested people can also watch the meeting virtually on Comcast channel 77 and AT&T channel 99. The meeting can also be viewed on the city website, www.cityofkeywest-fl.gov, or on Zoom by telephoning 1-646-558-8656.
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A wildfire near Florida City that caused Card Sound Road to be closed to traffic in both directions Monday was moving with easterly winds toward U.S. 1, concerning officials who say the highway could have to close if the blaze gets too close.
The two are the only roads connecting the Florida Keys to the mainland.
Wildfire mitigation specialist Scott Peterich said the fire started on April 30 and had burned 11,500 acres as of Monday afternoon. He reported that it was 55% contained.
The fire started in a remote area near the Homestead-Miami Speedway and was being pushed by winds toward Card Sound Road. Peterich said that his agency, the Florida Forest Service’s Everglades Division, was performing controlled burns by Card Sound Road to try to take away fuel from the fire and prevent it from jumping the road and heading toward U.S. 1.
In the event that the main highway does close, Peterich hoped that smoke will have died down enough that Card Sound Road could be reopened, so as not to cut off access to the Keys. Peterich said that scenario has occurred before. The fire could continue to burn for a few more days, he said Monday.
Peterich said that it was difficult to say what caused the fire exactly, but that it involved humans, as there was no lightning in the area recently. As of Monday, he could not say whether it had been set intentionally but was leaning toward the theory that it had been set by an engine spark from a recreational vehicle.
“It’s so hard to find the actual cause when you’re so far out in this remote area,” Peterich said.
The remoteness of the area means that the fire is not currently threatening any structures but has also made it difficult for firefighters to bring equipment out into the wetlands.
Firefighters have been using Type 6 engines, smaller engines that look like a pickup truck with a large water tank on the back, to fight the fire. Those tanks carry about 300 gallons of water each.
Peterich said the fire is “meandering” and leaving small pockets of unburned fuel around the area. The main goal is to keep it on the eastern side of Card Sound Road and prevent any further road closures.