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Florida's Governor: Officials Can Require Face Masks, But Can't Enforce It

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters at a campaign rally for President Donald Trump last month in Jacksonville, Fla.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters at a campaign rally for President Donald Trump last month in Jacksonville, Fla.

The disagreement among elected officials over how to respond to the coronavirus is playing out, not just in the nation's capital, but also in the states. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis surprised local officials last month when he lifted all statewide COVID-19 restrictions on businesses.

He said the peak of the state's COVID-19 cases were months in the past, and that measured steps to reopen the economy hadn't caused the spike many had predicted. That's why he said it's time to allow bars, restaurants, even movie theaters to open at full capacity.

On Friday, hours after President Trump announced he had coronavirus, in an interview with conservative radio talk show host Drew Steele, DeSantis was undeterred. "I've focused a lot on making sure society continues to function," he said. "I think you fight a pandemic better from that posture than if society is in the fetal position. "

DeSantis's order came on a day when nearly 2,800 people tested positive and 112 deaths were reported in Florida. In Miami-Dade County, Mayor Carlos Gimenez, like DeSantis a Republican, says infectious disease experts he consulted thought it was too much, too soon. Miami-Dade has been the state's hot spot. The number of cases has come down, Gimenez said because of a cautious approach that includes a late-night curfew and strict capacity limits on bars and restaurants. He said, "My concern is that opening too many things too quickly could lead us in the opposite direction."

Even though state restrictions on businesses have been lifted, Miami-Dade and some other counties are keeping capacity limits on restaurants and bars in place. To do so, they had to file with the state the estimated economic impact of the local restrictions.

In the Orlando area, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings had a warning for businesses that were considering operating at full capacity. He encouraged them first to check their insurance policies. Demings said, "There are liability issues that should be considered now the state government really has abdicated all responsibility."

In his order, the governor also targeted requirements that people wear face coverings in public places. Despite repeated requests from local officials and infectious disease experts, DeSantis refused to issue a statewide face covering mandate. But in Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and most other large and mid-size cities, local governments did. Those ordinances can remain in place, DeSantis said but local officials can't collect fines from scofflaws.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said, "I think unfortunately, Governor DeSantis made a political decision." On CBS4 in Miami, Gelber said he believes DeSantis is taking a page from President Trump's playbook. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman agrees. "He's listening to Donald Trump ... as opposed to epidemiologist and infectious disease specialists."

Kriseman says St. Petersburg has a face mask mandate in place, but up to now hadn't issued any fines. But, he says, "I still like having that tool in my tool belt." Prohibiting local officials from enforcing the mandate, Kriseman says is "like telling somebody we have a speed limit, we expect you to follow the speed limit, but we're not going to give you a ticket if you do violate it."

Gelber sent a letter to the governor asking him to reconsider his order on face mask mandates. "A mask is one of the only counter-measures that doesn't impact the economy," he says. "So why would he send out a message that you don't need to worry about wearing the mask anymore?"

DeSantis hasn't responded to Gelber's letter. But he has shown little patience for those who want to go slow. An example is the schools. He insisted school districts throughout Florida open for in-person classes and threatened to pull funding if they don't. In his interview on a conservative talk show last week, DeSantis called those who believe schools should conduct classes online only "the flat earthers of our day." And in hindsight, he said he now believes closing schools in March was "one of the biggest public health mistakes in modern American history."

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