Gov. Ron DeSantis wiped away South Florida’s mask mandates and other remaining COVID-19 safety measures on Monday, saying that he doesn’t consider the state to be in a crisis anymore with vaccine now in ample supply.
DeSantis issued an executive order immediately suspending COVID-19 emergency orders put in place by counties and cities.
“I think that’s the evidence-based thing to do,” he said. “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.”
DeSantis also signed legislation that will make his COVID-19 vaccine passport ban permanent, allow him to invalidate local COVID-19 emergency orders, and give the Legislature the power to override pandemic orders issued by governors in the future.
That legislation takes effect on July 1.
Broward County Mayor Steve Geller said he “vehemently disagrees” with DeSantis’ action, and he thinks local officials should be able to decide what is best for the communities they represent. He said the county is examining its legal options but will likely follow the order.
“He’s saying the crisis is over,” Geller said of the governor. “I don’t wish him ill for the sake of the state of Florida. I hope he’s right.”
Palm Beach County will review the executive order, said John Jamason, a county spokesman.
In a statement, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said she is “deeply concerned” about the governor’s announcement and urged the public to continue following health guidelines.
“We are still in a public health emergency, and our economy has not fully rebounded from crisis,” she said. “Fewer than half of our residents have been vaccinated, and we face a growing threat from variants.”
Statewide, about 30% of Floridians are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. About 42% of the state’s population has gotten at least one dose of the vaccine.
Businesses can keep mask requirements
Although DeSantis’ action will end government mask mandates, businesses still have the authority to require their customers wear masks in their establishments.
Many major retailers, including Publix, Target and Walmart, have their own mask requirements for customers, even in states that have lifted mask requirements.
Publix is not changing its mask policy “at this time,” said Maria Brous, a company spokeswoman.
Smaller businesses in South Florida spent Monday processing DeSantis’ announcement and weighing how to proceed. Several business owners said they will continue to enforce COVID safety guidelines in their shops and eateries, even if they are no longer required by the government.
Jarael Holston-Jones, owner of Fat Boyz Barbecue in Fort Lauderdale, said he thinks DeSantis is “premature” in suspending COVID rules. His eldest son, an employee at the barbecue joint, is sick with COVID-19.
“We’re still in a war and the war’s not over yet,” Holston-Jones said. “We can’t be too cautious when lives are at stake, and we shouldn’t place human lives over profits.”
Holston-Jones says he plans to keep COVID rules in place at his restaurant — 6 feet apart, masks when not eating — with the state’s help or without.
Rob Fava, owner of Big Apple Bookstore in Fort Lauderdale, said he will continue to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations at his shop selling used books, CDs, DVDs and records.
“People know I’m not messing around,” he said. “I don’t tolerate masks below the nose.”
But mask wearing is optional at Jamie’s Convenience Store in Delray Beach, where an estimated one in every four of customers has their face uncovered.
Owner Jamie Hess, welcoming the latest order from DeSantis, said he used to hand out masks to patrons without facial coverings, but now they come and go as they please.
“We hope that they wear a mask,” said Hess, who opened the business a year ago at 1155 E. Atlantic Ave., a half a block from the beach. “We wear it, but we can’t enforce it. They’re in and out of our store in 30 seconds anyways.”
At the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton, owner Al Poliak will keep requiring masks to be worn when entering and walking through the restaurant-music venue. Poliak called it a “lose-lose situation.”
“I got up onstage recently, it was a pretty rowdy crowd for a rowdy show, and I explained the house rules, and I got booed, OK?” Poliak said. “If I had gotten up there and said, ‘Everybody take your mask off and roll around on the floor together.’ I’d get booed by the other 50%.”
Local regulations scaled back
Local governments already had been limited in their power to enforce COVID-19 rules. In September, DeSantis prohibited local governments from collecting fines from people who violate pandemic-related mandates.
Broward County has 42 pages of pandemic-related orders, including an indoor mask requirement, 6-foot social distancing separation for bars and restaurants, and capacity limits on banquet halls.
Broward County had planned to lift its restrictions based on science and health metrics in consultation with the CDC, Johns Hopkins University, local hospitals and other public health experts, Geller said.
After Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he was blocking all local COVID emergency restrictions, Broward County Mayor Steve Geller responded by saying, “It appears to me, speaking personally, this demonstrates that he seems to care more about politics than the public safety of the state of Florida. I am highly concerned.”
“It appears to me, speaking personally, this demonstrates that he seems to care more about politics than the public safety of the state of Florida,” Geller said. “I am highly concerned.”
DeSantis said during his announcement, “We are no longer in a state of emergency. … It does not need an emergency posture by local government.”
DeSantis’ order aimed at local government “eliminates and supersedes any existing emergency order or ordinance issued by a county or municipality that imposes restrictions or mandates upon businesses or individuals due to the COVID-19 emergency.” The order notes nothing prohibits local governments from “regular enactment procedures to protect the health, safety, and welfare of its population.”
Only orders “due to the COVID-19 emergency are hereby eliminated and preempted,” the order specifies.
Another order signed Monday by DeSantis will repeal the suspended local COVID-19 measures when a new law that takes effect July 1 gives him that power.
Geller said he expects Broward County will still be able to require employees and the public wear masks in county buildings.
The order does not affect Broward County Public Schools, according to a statement issued by the district. Mask requirements for teachers and students at Palm Beach County schools remain in place, according to an email sent to parents and staff.
One unanswered question with DeSantis’ order is whether it will invalidate local emergency declarations, which are needed to draw down federal funding, said Cragin Mosteller, a spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Counties.
Florida has a COVID-19 positivity rate of about 8%, reporting an average of roughly 5,000 new cases a day over the past week, according to Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 dashboard. Public health experts say those metrics should be far lower before the public can safely stop wearing masks.
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The CDC revised its public health guidance this past week, saying fully vaccinated people can exercise and attend small gatherings outdoors without a mask with other people who are fully vaccinated. Mask wearing should continue at crowded outdoor events and while patronizing businesses indoors, according to the CDC’s recommendations.
The Florida Capitol also will reopen to the public on Friday, a week after lawmakers wrapped up their 60-day legislative session, according to a memo from Senate President Wilton Simpson.
Access to the building was tightly controlled with lawmakers, news reporters and staffers being tested weekly for COVID-19.
Lawmakers return to the Capitol on May 17 for a special session on gambling.
Sun Sentinel staff writers Ben Crandell, Wells Dusenbury and Phillip Valys contributed to this report.