Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed a bill that, as of July 1, will suspend all Covid-19 restrictions and mandates imposed by municipal governments.
DeSantis has been one of the country’s most vocal critics of lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, mask mandates and other measures intended to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, which, to date, has killed more than 580,000 people nationwide, including more than 35,000 in Florida. In March, the governor signed into law SB 72, a statute that limits civil liability for damages relating to Covid-19 exposure, and he remitted all outstanding fines, for both individuals and businesses, related to violations of local emergency orders.
On Monday, speaking at Big Catch, a seafood restaurant in St. Pete’s Old Southeast neighborhood, DeSantis slammed the restrictions imposed by other states during the pandemic and said Florida’s quick reopening was the right approach. He said his order “creates a default legal presumption that during any emergency, our businesses should be free from government mandates to close, and our schools should remain open for in-person instruction for our children. That actually was the pre-Covid pandemic playbook. No one advocated a year-long restriction or lockdown on business or schools like we’ve seen in these other states.”
House Speaker and Palm Harbor resident Chris Sprowls, appearing alongside DeSantis at the press conference, echoed the governor’s view. “Those states are devastating their economies, their businesses and their schools,” he said. “Their kids have lost nearly a year of learning gains during that period of time. That didn’t happen here in Florida.”
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman was quick to criticize the executive order.
To be clear, cities like St. Pete, Tampa, Orlando, Miami and Miami Beach, saved Florida and the governor’s behind throughout this pandemic. 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?
— Rick Kriseman (@Kriseman) May 3, 2021
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, accused DeSantis and Florida Republicans of rank hypocrisy, calling the move “a power grab” in a call with the Catalyst.
“I think it’s odd to take authority away from local governments to have a say on what they think is best for their localities,” Crist said. “Whether you’re in St. Petersburg, St. Augustine, Miami or Pensacola, [local governments] have a much better finger on the pulse of what’s great for their communities. It used to be that Republicans would say that government that’s closest to the people is best. But it looks like [DeSantis] and his colleagues don’t believe that anymore. It’s kind of unusual.”
Kriseman, via Twitter, concurred with Crist’s view that the GOP has abandoned its core beliefs.
Today, in preempting both local governments AND businesses from keeping their establishments safe, Ron DeSantis decided he cares not about public health, but power. I’m old enough to remember when Republicans at least pretended to be pro-business and for less government.
— Rick Kriseman (@Kriseman) May 3, 2021
Crist, who is expected to launch a gubernatorial campaign Tuesday, also challenged DeSantis’s assessment of the public health crisis and vaccination effort.
“He talked about the fact that 8 million Floridians have been vaccinated. Well, that means the balance of the 22 million have not,” Crist said. “And let us not forget those who haven’t gotten it yet, because [DeSantis] gave it to some of his friends first. That’s not right. There are too many people still at risk.”
DeSantis, however, said his order is intended to counter what he views as mixed messaging coming from the federal government. But he also fanned the flames of vaccine skepticism.
“When you have people, particularly in Washington, saying, ‘Get vaccinated, but then make sure you continue to social distance and wear masks all the time,’ well, the message that sends to people is that the vaccines don’t work,” he said. “Because if the vaccines worked, that would be your ticket to basically live normally and make decisions for yourself. They’ve sent a message to say, ‘Get vaccinated, but it really ain’t going to do anything for you.’ Why would someone want to put something in their arm if they don’t think it’s effective?”
Crist said the governor’s perspective “missed the point” of continuing to take precautions that could reduce Covid-19 cases.
“This is not the time to take your foot off the gas,” he said. “Saying that people who have gotten vaccinated shouldn’t wear masks anymore, or don’t have to social distance and what have you, well, this is not just about protecting the individual,” the congressman said. “It’s about protecting everyone around you, as well. You need to appreciate the fact that not everybody’s gotten the vaccine.”
After blasting the governor on Twitter, Kriseman, too, appeared at Big Catch, where he held up a copy of the legislation that DeSantis had just signed and answered questions from reporters. He said the measure fails to adequately address public health and safety and instead is more concerned about government control and keeping businesses open.
Reading from the text of the bill, Kriseman said it would limit the initial timespan of a local emergency order to seven days and no more than 42 days if such an order is renewed. That means St. Pete’s Covid-19 emergency order would have expired by the end of May last year, with no possibility of renewal.
“It comes down to politics,” the mayor said. “Unfortunately, this administration and this Legislature have applied politics to health care. And who loses when that happens? All the residents of the state of Florida.”
Kriseman went on to expand on his and Crist’s view of what they perceive as GOP overreach in Florida. “The Legislature is not shy about hypocrisy,” he said. “You’ll often hear them complain about Washington: ‘Washington shouldn’t tell us what to do. We know our state better than Washington.’ Well, the Legislature shouldn’t tell local government what to do. We know our cities and our counties better than they do.”
The mayor also said he expects to see organized opposition to the governor’s move. “Legally, this will be challenged,” Kriseman said.