Florida Businesses Challenge Virus-Driven Safety Orders

An employee at the Clevelander bar and restaurant in Miami Beach, Fla., stacks chairs on July 13, as the business shuts down due to public health concerns caused by the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

(CN) — Clashes between South Florida businesses and local governments over Covid-19-related restrictions are mounting, with one gym owner now claiming police shuttered his facility in retaliation for filing a legal challenge to a mandatory mask order. 

Sunshine State lawmakers had high hopes that Florida’s economic recovery would go off without a hitch in the wake of shutdowns prompted by the novel-coronavirus outbreak.

As businesses across the state began reopening in May, the rate of Covid-19 tests that were coming back positive remained comfortably under 5%. And it appeared that Florida may have curbed the spread of the virus.

Just as a sliver of optimism began emerging for many South Florida business owners on the brink, the rate of positive tests shot up and health officials reported an influx of patients with Covid-19. Miami-Dade County health officials reported that the number of Covid-19-positive patients on ventilators in that county more than doubled in July.  

For South Florida, this month has in turn seen curfews reinstated, blanket closure of restaurant dining rooms in Miami-Dade, mandatory mask orders and an array of new safety regulations for local businesses.

In Broward, a densely populated South Florida county, gyms have had to undergo a major transformation under executive order 20-21, a 65-page emergency measure filed July 8. Fitness equipment needs to be arranged 10 feet apart, patrons must have their temperature screened to ensure they are not sick, and bathrooms need to be cleaned every hour.

When it released the measure, the county said a spike in Covid-19-linked hospitalizations compelled it to strengthen “its regulatory efforts and increase penalties for those who violate emergency orders.” 

Michael Carnevale, owner of 18,000-square-foot gym Fitness1440, said he tried to follow the mandates but that doing so became a logistical mess.

“You close us down for three months and you open us back up to new mandates. We were trying to follow the mandates. But they just kept getting more and more bizarre. At some point, we had to put our foot down and say this is too much,” he said in an interview.

The 31-year-old hit Broward County with a lawsuit this week, claiming the county’s mandatory mask order is unconstitutional and endangers gym patrons by requiring them to wear face coverings during strenuous exercise.

Within a day of the lawsuit’s filing, Carnevale says, officers from the Plantation Police Department showed up at the gym “with an agenda to close [him] down.”

He claims they targeted him in retaliation for filing the case.

The police report states that the officers arrived July 27 in response to a call in which the massive gym was accused of allowing people to be onsite without masks. The report states that upon law enforcement’s arrival, “most patrons in the facility [were] without mandatory facial coverings.”

In the underlying executive order, Broward initially carved out an exception that allowed people engaged in “strenuous physical activity or exercise” to forgo mask-wearing. But the exception was trimmed July 17, such that it only applied when gym-goers are “in a pre-swim shower or swimming pool.”

The order makes owners of gyms and other businesses responsible for ensuring everyone on their premises has a face covering. Violations of the mandate carry potential criminal penalties, including a misdemeanor charge and a $500 fine.

Carnevale claims that he’s afraid that forcing patrons engaged in heavy exercise to wear a mask could be dangerous, especially if they have asthma or other respiratory conditions. According to the lawsuit, wearing a mask while doing strenuous exercise “risks injury to Broward County residents by obstructing their breathing.”

Police ended up issuing Carnevale a citation that required him to temporarily close the gym. He was brought to a Broward County jail after refusing to comply, he says.

A video that he and his wife shot shows him praising the police and the city of Plantation, but refusing officers’ request that he shut down his gym for 24 hours to bring the facility into compliance with county regulations.

“[The officers] say that we have to close our business … and if we don’t close our business, they’re gonna arrest us, and they’re gonna close us anyway,” Carnevale explains in the video.

“We won’t be backing down, so things are coming to a head right now,” Carnevale continues.

He repeats the refrain: “It’s all love. There’s no ego over here.”

Carnevale said in the interview that it was a challenge to keep up with the nearly $30,000-a-month rent for the gym space even before the Covid-19 outbreak.

“I took over the place in 2018. I was 29 at the time, overwhelmed. I made a ton of mistakes as many business owners do. But this isn’t exactly a lemonade stand I’m dealing with. Every move is critical. We were already in a tough bind,” he said.

The Plantation Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition to challenging the mandatory mask order, the lawsuit asks the court to strike down Broward’s curfew and its restrictions on large gatherings.

Carnevale is represented by constitutional crusader Anthony Sabatini, a statehouse representative and lawyer who has filed more than a dozen challenges to mask orders around Florida. While many of the cases are pending, judges in Alachua County and Leon County have rejected his argument that the orders in those jurisdictions infringe on constitutional rights.

“An individual Alachua County citizen’s right to be let alone is no more precious than the corresponding right of his fellow citizens not to become infected by that person and potentially hospitalized,” Circuit Judge Donna Keim wrote.

Carnevale’s lawsuit is not the only Broward County case to challenge Covid-19-related executive orders. More than 20 local bars are asking a judge to invalidate state and local orders that are preventing them from operating during the novel-coronavirus outbreak. Insofar as the orders allow the operation of restaurants, theme parks and other commercial places of gathering, they “implement a double standard that is unjust” to the bars and infringes on the bar owners’ constitutional rights, attorney Alex Arreaza says.

One of the officers who cited Carnevale’s gym for noncompliance mentioned on a Plantation talk show back in May that people “are quick to call” when they see someone allegedly violating an executive order.

“They’re trying to practice those measures themselves with the social distancing and wearing the mask. And they get frustrated when they see other people not following the order,” the officer said on Plantation Podcast.

On Wednesday, the Florida Department of Health’s daily tally reported 216 deaths linked to Covid-19, another record. South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, a Democrat, meanwhile sent a letter to  Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, asking his office to outline measures the state is taking to control the outbreak.

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