By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended all local-government coronavirus emergency orders on Monday as he signed a bill that makes permanent his ban on COVID-19 vaccine “passports” and limits the authority of cities and counties in future health-care crises.
“My message is that the vaccines protect you. Get vaccinated, and then live your life as if you are protected,” DeSantis said during an event at the Big Catch at Salt Creek, a St. Petersburg restaurant. “You don’t have to chafe under restrictions infinitum.”
DeSantis announced an executive order suspending local-government orders about coronavirus precautions and signed an emergency-management bill (SB 2006) approved Thursday by the Legislature.
While the executive order won’t block businesses from requiring customers to socially distance or wear masks, DeSantis said he will call at the next state clemency board meeting for lifting outstanding COVID-19-related fines that local governments have imposed on businesses.
Democrats called the executive order “premature” as deaths in Florida from COVID-19 continue to average around 60 a day, while saying the so-called vaccine passport-ban is “strange” as Republicans advocate for business freedom. The ban prevents businesses, schools and government agencies from requiring people to show proof of vaccination before gaining entry.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said the executive order is a further intrusion into local governments, while the passport-ban does the same to businesses.
“It’s been an interesting sort of role reversal that we’re seeing with Republican leadership, where they keep trying to tell businesses and corporations how to do their job and how to run their business,” Driskell said. “It’s very strange to me.”
House Minority Co-leader Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said the executive order will pressure businesses to lift COVID-19 requirements to avoid confusion.
Jenne added that one of the bright spots in DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic was allowing some counties, particularly in Southeast Florida, to make their own decisions in the early days of the pandemic.
“This is a complete reversal of one of the things that I would actually praise him for,” Jenne said. “He let places like Dade, Broward, Orange, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Duval (counties), kind of make some decisions on their own about how they wanted to handle this. And it really kept not just the amount of cases down, it kept a lot of the deaths from really skyrocketing, which they of course eventually did.”
The bill signed Monday by DeSantis will allow the governor to override local orders during health crises if they are determined to “unnecessarily restrict individual rights or liberties.”
“We need to put reasonable checks on government at every local level now that we have seen what can play out when this happens for such an extended period of time,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said.
DeSantis on April 2 issued an executive order blocking vaccine passports, which he said would create “huge” privacy issues that could result in people handing over medical information to a “big corporation.” The bill makes that permanent.
House Pandemics & Public Emergencies Chairman Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, said the bill prepares Florida for the next public-health emergency, while the COVID-19 crisis has provided “a good reminder of the extraordinary power with which we have vested our governments.”
“Thirteen months ago, we were facing a looming but largely indecipherable crisis,” Leek said. “We didn’t know what was coming at us. None of us could have imagined that governments would order shutdowns of your businesses and force people into isolation into their homes. You couldn’t imagine it. Today, what the once novel virus was is less so. We have therapeutics that work, we have vaccinations that save lives.”
DeSantis pointed to about 9 million people being vaccinated in the state.
“You have to ask yourself, if given that type of performance of the vaccine, given how great the monoclonal antibodies have done, which nobody ever talks about, but those have done very well, given all that, if that still you need emergency powers under those circumstances, then when are you going to be able to move beyond it?” DeSantis continued.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 6.4 million people in Florida have been fully vaccinated, 29.86 percent of the population, the 36th-best rate among states.
The state Department of Health reported Monday that nearly 2.6 million people have received the first doses of a two-dose series.
With DeSantis lifting local government orders, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said the state Capitol will be fully reopened for a special session on gambling during the week of May 17.
“Make no mistake about it, families are still dealing with COVID,” Simpson said. “We have family members still dying of COVID. But you have to ultimately weigh the balance of people’s lives and their mental health and and the amount of suicides and all of the things that go wrong by locking our citizens down.”
The bill signed by DeSantis will require local emergency orders to be narrowly tailored and to be extended in seven-day increments for a maximum duration of 42 days. Currently, such orders can be issued initially for seven days and extended indefinitely in seven-day increments.
Also, state agencies will be required to develop by the end of 2022 public health emergency plans, and the Division of Emergency Management will have to stockpile personal protective equipment.