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.