Governor Clarifies Stay-at-Home Executive Orders to Address Confusion

Confusion continues about Florida’s Stay-at-Home Orders.  As Lee Future reported yesterday [], Governor DeSantis’ Second Executive Order created confusion, and lacked openness and transparency.  This led to varying interpretations by local officials about what it means for existing local orders.  The apparent reason for the Governor’s 2nd Order was to clarify that local governments could not ban religious services, which set off a firestorm of criticism and confusion, esp. in places like Tampa where the City had a total ban on any religious services. 

Late yesterday afternoon, the Governor held a press conference to clarify that local jurisdictions can go beyond what the Governor has done as long as it’s not in direct conflict with a provision of the Governor’s Executive Order. In the press conference the Governor described the State’s Executive Order as setting the floor, but municipalities can enhance, modify or add any further restrictions.  Thus, if local governments enacted an outright ban on an activity or a service that was enumerated in the Governor’s Order, it would be superseded by the Governor’s 2nd Order.  However, local governments can place restrictions on how those essential activities and services are conducted.  For example, local orders CAN limit the number of people at religious services, and in fact, the Governor’s order incorporates the CDC guidelines which limit gatherings to 10 people and requires proper social distancing.

With respect to the impact on existing orders in Lee County, since the County didn’t take any action prior to the Governor’s order, there are no conflicts with the Governor’s Order.  According to Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane, the Sanibel City Attorney has determined that the Governor’s Order has no impact on the City’s Proclamation 20-018 (adopted 4/1/20).  While the Governor’s list of essential services includes “hotels, motels, other commercial lodging establishments and temporary vacation rentals” as, “essential retail and commercial businesses that MAY remain open”, the Sanibel order did not close lodging establishments, it just placed restrictions on them by prohibiting new guests or registrations for a temporary time period (currently 28 days) but expressly allows current guests to remain.”  [Using this interpretation, the Fort Myers Beach rental restrictions would also be consistent with the Governor’s Order.]

Anticipate questions of interpretations and further clarifications as orders continue to change at the federal, state, county, and local levels, as this crisis continues to unfold.

Below are two articles about the Governor’s clarification and how other communities are responding (Tampa and Orlando).

Originally published in the Sun-Sentinel on April 2, 2020

Governor Ron DeSantis explains his decision not to order the closure of churches and places of worship.

Gov. Ron DeSantis quietly signed a second order Wednesday evening that forces local governments to follow the state’s shutdown order to the letter, opening the door to an immediate resumption of activities that cities and counties had banned.

But at a news conference Thursday, DeSantis asserted his new order merely “set a floor, and you can’t go below that,” adding that if local governments wanted to close a running trail, for example, they could do so.

Even so, Order 20-92, issued late Wednesday to “provide clarity” to DeSantis’ initial mandate, is clear: “This Order shall supersede any conflicting official action or order issued by local officials in response to COVID-19.”

Mike Ryan, the mayor of Sunrise and a board member of the Florida League of Mayors, was blunt about what he saw as the effect of DeSantis’ decision.

“That is a very clear indication that the governor is ordering that all of our local orders that we entered are preempted and invalidated,” Ryan said. “As a result a number of issues are implicated.”

Ryan said Sunrise employees, who are dealing with a myriad of other coronavirus-related issue, were diverted Thursday trying to figure out if any of its regulations, such as the definition of “essential” business or rules for business that remain open comply with standards such as cleaning and the availability of disinfectant wipes, are still in force.

Ryan said the concern is shared by many other local government officials in South Florida, which accounts for more than half the state’s coronavirus cases. “We’re scrambling to understand it.”

Miami Beach said in a statement Thursday that it “has requested clarification from the State of Florida as to the scope and intent” of the DeSantis order, adding that it might end up changing the city’s rules “consistent with any clarification received from the State of Florida.”

DeSantis’s original order, which required Floridians to stay at home until April 30, superseded all local government shelter-in-place restrictions. But it allowed local governments to impose or keep their own stricter requirements if they wanted.

The governor’s office did not send out a copy of the second order via email, as it did with the first one, and there was no official announcement other than the order appearing on the state website. The first was revealed at a Tallahassee news conference attended by the Capitol press corps.

“I understand that the governor said in a news conference [on Thursday] that those are only a floor, but there’s no way to read” the order without concluding otherwise. “What he’s done is said, look at you as a local community cannot decide this,” Ryan said.

He said city leaders are imploring the governor to allow, “in a place like Broward County, that’s an epicenter of this deadly virus, that’s dealing with an incredibly high number of vulnerable population, that we can make the decisions locally.”

Religious gatherings

The well-publicized order on Wednesday exempted religious services. Combined with the effects of the second, unpublicized order, the effect could be that the large religious gatherings banned in many communities by local shutdown orders — and which led to the arrest of a Tampa-area megachurch pastor — might be allowed again.

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, a Palm Beach County Democrat, said in a statement Thursday evening that DeSantis should close what she called a “dangerous loophole.”

“For many people, connecting with a faith community is understandably important at a time like this. With that said, the coronavirus is just as dangerous and infectious whether you are in a community center or a church or synagogue,” Frankel said. “One infected person has the ability to set off a chain of events that can overwhelm a healthcare system. Sadly, we have already seen that catastrophic impact in South Korea and France, where massive religious gatherings left thousands of worshipers infected.”

At the news conference, DeSantis said, “I don’t think government has the authority to close churches, and I’m certainly not going to do that.”

On Thursday, DeSantis said that “coming up on the Easter season, people want to have access to religious services, whether online or more socially distant.”

He said he and local leaders have talked to religious leaders and “almost 100% agree” with mandating more restricting social-distancing policies.

The new mandate comes after Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of The River of Tampa Bay church was arrested Monday in Hillsborough County on charges of unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules after refusing to follow such guidelines.

Ryan said he isn’t arguing that religious institutions are not essential. But he said cities should be able to impose requirements for social distancing and reducing capacity. He said DeSantis’ order would put local authorities in unworkable situations if a large group gathers for a funeral or too many people crowd into a church service.

Nezar Hamze, executive director of the South Florida Muslim Federation, said the governor’s order won’t change South Florida mosques’ practice of limiting gatherings to 10 or fewer people standing at least 6 feet apart.

The Archdiocese of Miami also is discouraging gatherings in its churches. Archbishop Thomas Wenski wrote to priests in Broward and Miami-Dade on Wednesday, the same day as the governor’s order, that they should not offer confession, holy Communion or “any similar type of activity” that would spur parishioners to leave their homes for at least the next two weeks.

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton Synagogue, an Orthodox synagogue, said, “I am gravely concerned with the exemption for religious organizations. We should be at the forefront of putting safety, health and well-being above all else. This isn’t an issue of religious freedom. It is one of our very survival.”

Rabbi Allan Tuffs of Temple Beth El of Hollywood, a Reform synagogue, said, “I think it’s terribly irresponsible on the part of the governor to make this exemption, and I think it’s terribly irresponsible of any religious leader to assemble congregations for worship during this current epidemic.”

John Stemberger, president of the conservative Florida Family Policy Council, said the majority of faith leaders he’s spoken with plan to hold digital services, and that he wasn’t aware of any still planning to meet in person.

“There’s really a division in how people are thinking about this,” Stemberger said. “The vast majority of them get it…and don’t think the government is overreaching … I think there [are] others, a minority, a vocal minority, that is sounding the alarm that this is a gross violation of our rights.”

Sun Sentinel staff writers Sergio Carmona and Lois Solomon and Orlando Sentinel staff writers Martin E. Comas and Ryan Gillespie contributed to this report.

Anthony Man can be reached at or on Twitter @browardpolitics

Originally Published in the Tampa Bay Times on April 3, 2020

Ron DeSantis quietly signed second executive order targeting local coronavirus restrictions

The order says the statewide stay-at-home order ‘shall supersede any conflicting official action or order issued by local officials.’

Hours after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order Wednesday, he quietly signed another one that appeared to override restrictions put in place by local governments to halt the spread of coronavirus.

However, DeSantis on Thursday said the amendment he signed does the reverse, instigating another round of confusion over the intent of his directives.

The second order, first reported by the Tampa Bay Times, said that new state guidelines taking effect Friday morning “supersede any conflicting official action or order issued by local officials in response to COVID-19.” It seemed to suggest that counties and cities could not place limitations that would be more strict than the statewide guidelines.

And that’s how local officials interpreted it.

But then DeSantis said late Thursday that this was not the case. “If (local governments) want to do more, they can do more in certain situations,” he told reporters after the Times story published. His office didn’t respond to multiple requests for clarification.

DeSantis implied that the intention of his second directive was to block local governments from shuttering churches and synagogues during the outbreak. Under DeSantis’ original order, religious services are considered an “essential activity.”

“I don’t know that (governments) would have the authority, quite frankly, to close a religious (institution),” DeSantis said. “The Constitution doesn’t get suspended here.”

If that’s the case, it would mean that Hillsborough County cannot enforce its emergency measure to shut down houses of worship, a rule that drew national attention and the ire of the local Republican Party. The county imposed it after Tampa megachurch The River of Tampa Bay held two Sunday services, leading to the arrest of pastor Rodney Howard Browne.

DeSantis issued the second order to “provide clarity,” the document says. It did anything but.

Under the prior order, cities and counties could not allow activities that the state prohibited but they could issue tougher stay-at-home orders. DeSantis said Thursday that’s still the case, despite signing a new directive that seems to say the opposite.

The discreet circumstances under which the second order materialized has only added to the confusion. DeSantis signed it Wednesday at 6:36 p.m. — just five hours after he issued his statewide stay-at-home order. Unlike that first action — which DeSantis unveiled at a well-attended press conference that aired on the state’s cable channel and was sent out in a news release from his office — there was no announcement about the signing of the second order or a subsequent news release.

Instead, it was quietly added to the governor’s website just after the state reported the 100th coronavirus-related death in Florida.

For weeks, DeSantis, a Republican, resisted calls from local leaders, many of them Democrats, to issue a statewide stay-at-home order. He insisted that cities and counties knew best how to handle the response.

“We’ve been willing to work with any of the local communities, but I think it’s been a surgical approach,” DeSantis said on March 24. “It’s been an approach that’s been in consultation with these folks.”

Local government officials expressed outrage that DeSantis is now overriding their decisions. In the absence of state direction, many counties and cities passed local stay-at-home orders that closely adhered to advice from public health experts on how to halt the spread of the virus.

Under the order DeSantis signed Wednesday, senior citizens and individuals with a “significant underlying medical condition” must remain at home for the rest of April. All other Floridians can’t leave their home unless it’s to obtain or provide essential services.

Essential  services includes health care workers, law enforcement and grocery stores, among many, many others. DeSantis’ orders also classified gun and ammo shops, laundromats, hardware stores and pet supply stores as “essential services.”

In a significant deviation from what experts advise, attending church services is considered an “essential activity.” DeSantis would also permit many outdoor activities, including golfing, if practiced with social-distancing.

Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren said it’s now unclear whether churches and synagogues can hold large services with “500 people packed shoulder to shoulder.” Howard-Browne, the Tampa pastor, said he would halt Sunday services, but that was before word had spread of DeSantis’ second order.

“This has created a lot of confusion,” Warren said. “For reasons I can’t fathom, the governor is using his power to remove safe guards that Hillsborough County and other counties have put in place to save lives.”

DeSantis on Thursday suggested that elected officials instead work with faith leaders to keep people safe while allowing them to worship, adding that the Easter season is approaching.

“We absolutely ask them to abide by social distancing guidelines,” DeSantis said. “But in times like this, the service they’re performing is going to be very important for people.”

Reacting to the governor’s new directive, Hillsborough County Les Miller pleaded with religious leaders to “follow the safe distancing guidelines put out by” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Jennifer Tolbert, the director of state health reform at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said keeping churches and synagogues open “could lead to greater exposure.” On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence, known for his Evangelical Christian faith, urged Americans to avoid services with more than 10 people.

In a letter to DeSantis, Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp urged the governor to repeal his amended order, pointing to Sacramento, where one-third of all coronavirus cases have been linked to a Pentecostal church.

“This is a perilous action and will likely lead to deaths and hospitalizations,” Kemp wrote.

Many local officials were already scrambling to understand DeSantis’ statewide guidelines before they take effect at midnight. Pinellas County officials passed an order Thursday to close thousands of businesses for 30 days that are not deemed essential in the coronavirus pandemic, though the seven commissioners and other county leaders acknowledged it wasn’t clear what was “essential.”

Part of the confusion comes from how the state order was written. Rather than define define essential services, it defers to guidelines from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Miami-Dade County, where residents have lived under a lockdown for weeks.

While the order does not mandate any business shut down, it severely restricts the movement of employees and customers and many non-essential stores and offices will likely choose to temporarily close. Businesses are encouraged to telework and restaurants to provide food via drive-thru, take out or delivery.

Warren called the governor’s order “so weak and spineless I thought it was an April Fool’s joke.”

Pinellas Commissioner Charlie Justice accused DeSantis of playing semantics with the order. Each commissioner, he said, is going to be flooded with questions because the order is so vague.

“I feel like he wants to say he didn’t close any businesses,” Justice said. “This is what we’re going to get for the next 30 days. This is the governor’s order, not ours.”

Times staff writers Divya Kumar and Mark Puente contributed to this report. This story is developing.

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