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DeSantis Orders End Of Local COVID Mandates, Signs Bill That Includes Vaccine 'Passport' Ban

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In this image from The Florida Channel, Gov. Ron DeSantis signs an executive order to suspend all remaining COVID-19 restrictions imposed by local governments across the state at the Big Catch restaurant in St. Petersburg on Monday, May 3, 2021.

The law takes effect July 1. The governor's executive order enacts some provisions of the law more quickly to “bridge the gap between then and now,” he said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed an executive order to immediately suspend COVID-19 restrictions imposed by communities across the state.

He also signed legislation giving his office sweeping powers to invalidate local emergency measures put in place during the pandemic, including limitations on business operations and the shuttering of schools.

The law, which goes into effect July 1, codifies much of the actions DeSantis had already taken, including a ban on vaccine "passports."

The Republican governor's executive order enacts some provisions of the new law more quickly to “bridge the gap between then and now,” he said during a press conference and signing ceremony at Big Catch at Salt Creek, a St. Petersburg restaurant.

DeSantis said that while the fight against COVID-19 continues, “we are no longer in a state of emergency.” He cited the effectiveness of vaccines in slowing the spread of the illness and a need for people to maintain personal liberties.

"I think this is the evidence-based thing to do," he said. "I think folks that are saying they need to be policing people at this point ... you really are saying you don't believe in the vaccines, you don't believe in the data, you don't believe in the science. We've embraced the vaccines, we've embraced the science on it."

More than 2.2 million Floridians have been infected with COVID-19, and more 35,000 have died, but in per capita deaths Florida has fared better than most states. It has seen 166 per 100,000 as compared with the highest rate, in New Jersey, of 287 per 100,000.

The executive order affects only government action, such as mask mandates or fines related to restrictions. It doesn’t stop businesses from issuing their own requirements of customers, the governor said. Individuals who wish to wear masks or follow personal protocols may continue to do so.

Some governments have already lifted restrictions. But Miami-Dade County, for example, still requires masks in all indoor public spaces and outdoors if people are within 10 feet (about three meters) of each other. The governor’s executive order rescinds those rules.

SB 2006 will ensure that neither the state nor local governments can close businesses or keep students out of in-person instruction at Florida schools, except for hurricane emergencies, and caps all local emergency at seven-day increments.

The legislation also allows the Governor of Florida to invalidate a local emergency order The bill also improves Florida’s emergency planning for future public health emergencies, by adding personal protective equipment and other public health supplies to the inventory of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

The bill allows the governor to override local orders during a health crisis if they "unnecessarily restricts individual rights or liberties" and places time limits on some emergency orders.

State and local orders for public health emergencies had been able to last up to seven days and extend indefinitely in seven-day increments. The measure caps the maximum extension at 42 days.

The limitation doesn’t apply to hurricanes or weather-related emergencies.

The law also addresses planning for future health emergencies by adding personal protective equipment and other public health supplies to the inventory of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

The bill (SB 2006), passed last week by the Republican-led Legislature, also prohibits businesses, schools, and government agencies from requiring people to show documentation that proves they received a COVID-19 vaccination. DeSantis had signed an executive order last month to ban the so-called vaccine passports.

“Not only does this bill provide protections for individuals, for school children, for businesses vis-à-vis emergency orders, it also provides protections for all Floridians, in terms of their personal health information, and prohibits, statutorily, vaccine passports,” DeSantis said before signing the measure into law.

DeSantis was joined at the press conference by Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and bill sponsors Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach.

“We took care of our most vulnerable from the very beginning, that’s why our pandemic numbers look the way they are relative to our peers,” Senate President Wilton Simpson said.

“Make no mistake about it, families are still dealing with COVID, we have families members still dying of COVID. But you have to ultimately weigh the balance of people’s lives, and their mental health and the amount of suicides and all of the things that go wrong by locking our citizens down.”

Democratic leaders around the state wasted little time attacking DeSantis' actions.

Democrat Rick Kriseman, mayor of St. Petersburg, immediately took to Twitter after DeSantis' press conference to share his thoughts on the governor's order.

"To be clear, cities like St. Pete, Tampa, Orlando, Miami, and Miami Beach, saved Florida and the governor's behind throughout this pandemic," he said. "Can you imagine if each city had been led by Ron DeSantis? How many lives would have been lost? What would our economy look like today?"

Kriseman continued his criticism at his own press conference at Big Catch later Monday.

"Instead of the legislature and governor preempting cities and counties, they should be calling us all up and saying 'thank you' to cities and counties, because what could have happened in the state of Florida as far as the number of hospitalizations and number of deaths didn’t happen because of the actions that cities and counties took that this legislation directly addresses and in large part prohibits us from doing."

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, also a Democrat, issued a more measured statement late Monday:

"The best decisions are made by local authorities who are closest to the unique health and welfare needs of our communities. We will continue to follow CDC guidelines and encourage all of our residents to get vaccinated so that we can safely return to a sense of normalcy."

DeSantis received more criticism from Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, a former Republican governor who's expected to announce he's going to again run for governor this week.

“Gov. DeSantis's actions (Monday) strip local leaders of their ability to make decisions that protect their citizens. It's government overreach at its worst," he said. "Gov. DeSantis is enabling the spread of the coronavirus while Florida is seeing 5,000 new cases of coronavirus daily and nearly 36,000 people tragically lost.

“Gov. DeSantis failed to lead during the pandemic, leaving local officials as the last line of defense against the pandemic, forcing them to make the hard decisions to save lives. This is a continuation of that immoral lack of leadership and another reason why he doesn't deserve to be reelected.”

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.”

Information from WJCT's Brendan Rivers, News Service of Florida and the Associated Press was used in this report.