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Confusion reigns as DeSantis wipes out Covid-19 fines

Brian Hartz

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law this week a statute that provides immunity to businesses and other organizations against Covid-19 liability lawsuits. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore.

Local leaders are pushing back against Gov. Ron DeSantis’s executive order, issued last week, that calls for a “categorical, statewide remission of fines related to Covid-19 restrictions.”

The proclamation said municipal governments across Florida have imposed “unprecedented government restrictions” on individuals and business “over the course of the past year,” but it does not apply to orders or enforcements on the part of state government.

DeSantis, who has taken a laissez-faire approach to the Covid-19 pandemic, not only ordered that fines be remitted, but that collection of new fines be stopped; however, his order stopped short of canceling fines imposed on assisted living facilities, hospitals or health care providers.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman quickly issued a statement of defiance in response to DeSantis’s order.

“Time and again,” Kriseman said, “in the absence of state leadership and a coherent strategy, cities like St. Petersburg have had to take the lead. We will continue to do so as best we can.”

Kriseman added that St. Pete’s two-week average Covid-19 positivity rate has dropped below 5 percent but cautioned that “we still need to be cautious and careful.” He added, “Masks still work. Let’s get to the finish line and win this race.”

According to the latest numbers provided by the Tampa Bay Partnership — which has been tracking infection rates, hospitalizations, hospital capacity and emergency room visits — the region, as a whole, is also faring better in the coronavirus fight. In the two-week period that ended March 14, new cases declined to 928 per day compared to 1,049 per day during the week before. Likewise, the positivity rate during the first two weeks of March was 5.42 percent, a decline from 5.76 percent. However, Tampa Bay’s positivity rate is slightly above the state average of 5.31 percent.

But with spring break in full swing across Florida, bringing hordes of out-of-state visitors, leaders in popular spring break destinations decried the timing of DeSantis’s order. Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, for example, issued a joint statement that the governor’s stance “inadvertently sends a message to residents and the business community alike that common-sense measures to fight Covid-19 are no longer needed — when we know that they do, in fact, work to prevent the spread and, most importantly, save lives.”

The statement acknowledged that positivity rates are heading in the right direction and vaccination efforts are finally gathering steam, but “now is not the time to throw caution to the wind as we are so close to putting this pandemic behind us.”

Hillsborough and Pinellas county governments concur. Mask orders remain in effect in both counties. It’s a different story, though, in other parts of the region. Sarasota County doesn’t have a county-wide mask ordinance, and the city of Sarasota’s mask order expired on Feb. 25. Manatee County’s county-wide mask ordinance was repealed in September, although municipalities such as Bradenton, Anna Maria, Longboat Key and Holmes Beach continue to have mask orders on the books.

Thankfully, there’s more clarity and progress on the vaccine front. As of Monday, 4,252,250 Florida residents had been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. That number includes 225,151 people in Hillsborough County and 200,608 in Pinellas. Broken down by race, however, the numbers show some disparities. In Hillsborough, only 15,282 Black residents have been vaccinated. In Pinellas, 8,356 Black residents have received the shot.

The good news is that more vaccine is available, additional vaccination sites are proliferating and vaccine eligibility is being expanded. In Hillsborough County, the federal government has set up a vaccination site at the Tampa Greyhound Track. As of Monday, anyone age 60 and up can make an appointment with proof of age and residency. Vaccination eligibility has also been extended to law enforcement officers, firefighters and K-12 teachers and staff who are 50 years of age and up.

Additional vaccine is also being made available to homebound residents, who can request a shot by writing to HomeboundVaccine@em.myflorida.com.

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