Gov. Ron DeSantis doesn’t want to shut down Florida. What power do mayors and counties have to control the virus?

By RYAN GILLESPIE and STEPHEN HUDAK, published in the ORLANDO SENTINEL, Nov 20, 2020

Across the country, states and counties are ordering residents to hunker down or wear masks as governors brace for another surge of coronavirus cases.

But in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has prohibited nearly all shutdown actions that local counties were able to take early in the pandemic.

It’s a stark contrast from March when Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings first ordered residents to stay at home when there were just 50 cases of the virus across the county of 1.4 million people. Today the county has surpassed 53,000 cases since more than 600 residents dead.

Florida is in the midst of a “resurgence,” according to the most recent weekly White House Coronavirus Task Force report obtained by the Sentinel.

The number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in Florida jumped by 17% in the most recent week and Orange County has the fourth-highest load of new cases behind just Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.

But what can local elected officials do about it?  Here are answers to some questions about what could happen next.

Why won’t the state shut down again?

The short answer is because Gov. Ron DeSantis opted against it.

After county officials issued a patchwork of stay-home-orders and business closings at the start of the pandemic, DeSantis ultimately ordered residents to stay at home statewide on April 2 when there were about 7,000 cases, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

By May 18, he allowed businesses to begin reopening again, though Florida was only weeks away from what would be the start of a summer surge that peaked in July with as many as 15,300 new virus cases in a single day.

Since then the governor has loosened restrictions and on Sept. 25 issued a new order that prohibited cities and counties from enacting their own business shutdowns or fining residents for refusing to wear a mask. Once again, the state was only weeks away from another surge now underway, according to the White House report.

The governor’s office did not respond to questions this week about whether DeSantis might reconsider a way to give local governments more options.

DeSantis did reverse course at least once before. On June 3 he allowed bars, tattoo parlors, movie theaters and some other businesses to begin operating at half capacity as part of “Phase 2″ in his reopening plan. Just 23 days later he ordered another shutdown of bars as coronavirus cases spiked. They remained closed until his September order lifted most restrictions on businesses and forbid counties from imposing new ones.

So what can counties do now?

DeSantis’ order allows for counties to reduce restaurant capacity to 50%, though they would have to provide a justification that passes state muster. None of the Central Florida counties have attempted that maneuver.

Like DeSantis, Demings and other local officials have said they want to avoid the economic toll of shutdowns on businesses.

“We’re fortunate in our community that we haven’t exceeded the capacity of our local hospital systems,” Demings said last week. “But I don’t want to wait until it gets so bad so that we have to take other draconian methods to gain compliance.”

For now, across Central Florida, politicians and health experts are begging residents to wear masks in public or when in groups, frequently wash their hands and keep socially distant from others.

Demings is also sending teams of county employees out to inspect whether businesses are following the safety precautions. He hasn’t starting fining business owners who run afoul of the rules — something he thinks he can do under DeSantis’ order — but said last week he’s considering it.

Demings said his strike teams visited 11 bars last weekend and none were in compliance. In one example, after midnight at Knights Pub in east Orange, the teams found a line of patrons wrapped around the building and a manager on duty said there were about 500 people inside. The teams noted hand sanitizer stations inside but no way to socially distance. At other bars, teams found crowds around the bar or bartenders not wearing face coverings.

“If the numbers continue to increase, then I’ll make a determination on whether we can use our authority to create some type of fines or penalties for businesses we find to be non-compliant,” he said.

Osceola County last week also said it would use similar teams to urge businesses to follow the guidelines.

The University of Central Florida and other universities have said for months that they are encouraging students who leave this week for the Thanksgiving break to remain off campus until after the new year, another effort to limit travel and spread of the virus among generations in close quarters, which has played a significant role in driving up local cases.

Orange County is also ramping up virus testing again, opening testing sites seven days a week, Demings said, as a way to catch cases early and stop the spread. Free rapid testing, which provides results in minutes versus days, is available at Barnett Park just west of Orlando.

What happens if a county defies the governor?

No one knows yet because it hasn’t happened. But some local officials are growing increasingly agitated that they are limited in their response.

A group of mayors held a news conference last week calling on DeSantis to issue a statewide mask order – which he’s resisted for months – as well as to restore local control over potential new restrictions. A localized response along with better contact tracing and increased testing at state facilities could prevent the need for future shutdowns, they argued. The mayors included Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg, as well as Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, Sunrise Mayor Michael Ryan, Miami Shores Village Mayor Crystal Wagar and Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez.

“Counties and cities need to have the flexibility to make choices to respond to what’s happening in their [jurisdictions] and, when you take away the enforcement measures, they’re no longer able to respond based on infection rates or hospital capacity or other health data,” said Cragin Mosteller, a spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Counties. “Those are local numbers and therefore should be addressed by local decisions.”

It’s possible a county could still try to order a shutdown, though a political and legal battle would surely follow, said one attorney who works in government law.

“If you wanted to pick a battle – even if you thought you’d lose – this is one to pick,” said Cliff Shepard, a government law attorney unaffiliated with Orange County. “The bulldog thing to do is say, ‘Let them sue me and we’ll just deal with it,’ while knowing that he’d likely lose, but to go down fighting.”

Image Credits: Image by Shafin Al Asad Protic from Pixabay