South Florida Mayors Rebuke Governor for Blocking Covid Safety Measures

“The governor has declared the pandemic is over. We hope the pandemic listens,” Broward County Mayor Steven Geller said after Florida’s governor suspended pandemic-related restrictions statewide Monday.

Guests wear masks as required to attend the official reopening day of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Saturday, July 11, 2020. Disney reopened two Florida parks, the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, Saturday, with limited capacity and safety protocols in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

(CN) — Mayors in Florida’s two most populous counties decried Republican Governor Ron DeSantis on Monday night, claiming he prematurely declared victory over the novel coronavirus by signing executive orders axing Covid-19 safety measures statewide.

The governor’s orders void emergency virus-safety measures enacted by Florida cities and counties, including mask mandates, social distancing rules and occupancy limits.

DeSantis also signed a bill Monday that generally prohibits Florida local governments from enacting emergency orders for more than six weeks. The bill gives the governor’s office the power to cancel any local emergency orders that it deems to unduly infringe on residents’ rights.

Broward County Mayor Steven Geller said in an interview that the governor’s decision makes it impossible for county leaders to take swift action if there is a regional surge in novel coronavirus infections.

Covid-19 daily death rates in Florida have dropped significantly since early January, when more than 200 deaths a day were being attributed to the virus.

But Geller points to statistics from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, which indicated last week that Florida’s rate of positive Covid-19 tests was high relative to other states.

In mid-April, counts of daily deaths attributed to the virus were still ranging between 50 and 60 in Florida, according to weekly averages provided by Tallahassee Reports.

“The governor has declared the pandemic is over. We hope the pandemic listens,” said Geller, a Democrat. “The governor’s action has stripped Broward County of the ability to combat the virus.”

Broward — where Geller has served on the county commission since 2016 — is the second-most populous county in Florida and has the second-highest number of Covid-19-linked deaths behind Miami-Dade County. Nearly 3,000 Broward deaths have been attributed to the virus.

Geller said he fears that DeSantis’ message that Floridians are out of the woods will dampen already waning demand for the vaccine.

“People who had hesitancy about getting vaccinated will now have less urgency to get a shot,” he said. “The only way we’re going to get out of this is by reaching herd immunity. And I think the governor’s orders prevent us from reaching that.”

Early Monday, DeSantis held a press conference in which he announced his decision to invalidate local Covid-19 safety measures. He justified the decision by citing progress in the state’s vaccination efforts.

According to the Florida Department of Health, nearly nine million people in Florida have gotten Covid-19 shots, with more than 6.3 million having received full vaccination courses.

DeSantis touted his light-handed approach to regulation amid the outbreak, while professing that politicians across the country have used the pandemic as a means to “seize power.”

“Washington D.C. banned dancing at weddings. They’re gonna have law enforcement there policing people’s weddings, say you can’t dance?” DeSantis said. “It’s insane.”

“My message is the vaccines protect you. Get vaccinated and then live your life as if you’re protected,” DeSantis added.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said in an interview that local governments can keep their economies thriving with mask orders still in place.

“I understand the desire to open up the economy. But that doesn’t preclude the desire to want to open it up safely. Indoor mask usage in no way impairs opening up the economy,” Gelber said.

Gelber, a Democrat, said “hundreds of people are dying from Covid each week” in Florida.

“We still are seeing the spread of the virus. There’s just no reason not to have a mask requirement indoors,” he said. “There’s no reason except that the governor wants to make a political statement.”

Republican state Representative Anthony Sabatini meanwhile told Courthouse News by phone that he believes local mask orders should have been invalidated long ago.

Sabatini, who’s planning a run for Congress in Florida’s 11th District, made headlines last year when he filed a deluge of lawsuits across Florida, challenging mask orders as unconstitutional. The lawsuits characterized the mask orders as an “overreach of … local government not seen in the history of Florida.”

When asked if DeSantis’ decision will restore a sense of normalcy in Florida, Sabatini said, “I think people went back to normal eight months ago.”  

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava stated on her social media Monday evening that she was “deeply concerned by the governor’s decision today.”

The mayor cited uncertainty over the dangers posed by variant strains of the novel coronavirus, and she noted that less than half of Florida’s residents have been vaccinated.

Among Florida counties, Miami-Dade has the highest incidence of Covid-19-linked deaths by far. More than 6,000 of the state’s 35,000 Covid-19-linked deaths were recorded in Miami-Dade, the state’s most populous county. Though mayoral elections in Miami-Dade are nonpartisan, Levine Cava is a registered Democrat.

DeSantis’ move Monday was in step with his prior policies preempting cities and counties from enforcing coronavirus safety protocols.

In September 2020, he signed an executive order suspending the collection of local government fines against individuals for violating Covid-19 safety orders. This past March, he used an executive order to cancel all Covid-19-related fines against individuals and businesses, except for nursing homes, hospitals and other health care providers.

In April, he signed yet another executive order that prohibited businesses from requiring customers to present documentation verifying their coronavirus vaccination status. The bill DeSantis signed Monday contains a similar ban on requiring “vaccine passports” to enter a business.

While DeSantis’ executive orders voided local Covid-19 emergency measures, they do not curtail cities and counties’ ability to institute public health protection ordinances through “regular enactment procedures.”

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