Calling it “an act of executive grace,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ latest order removed fines and penalties levied against individuals who violated mask ordinances or social distancing guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic.
The order took effect immediately as the governor announced phase 3 of the state’s reopening on Sept. 25.
While the order eliminates the collection of fines for COVID-19-related violations, it didn’t address the elimination or continuation of measures local municipalities have enacted, such as the mandatory mask-wearing upon entering businesses and restaurants in Monroe County and Key West.
Monroe County’s facial covering ordinance is still in effect and can be enforced against businesses that do not follow Monroe County ordinance 026-2020. There will be no citations against individuals, but code compliance can still cite businesses that are not requiring facial coverings inside the business, said Kristen Livengood, county public information officer.
Key West Mayor Teri Johnston told the Keys Weekly that she interprets the governor’s order the same way as Monroe County officials.
“It’ll be up to the individual businesses, but they are in violation of our city’s emergency orders if they don’t require masks,” Johnston said.
Johnston asked Keys Weekly to “double check with the city’s legal department about whether Key West businesses must still require masks.”
When Keys Weekly posed that question to the city’s legal department, City Attorney Shawn Smith and assistant city attorney Nathalia Mellies replied, “We give our advice to the City Commission.”
Johnston acknowledged on Sept. 30 that the governor’s Sept. 25 announcement has led to significant confusion among business owners, residents and even officials.
“From my perspective, I think the only thing that has changed is that individuals on the street won’t be fined or cited for not wearing a mask,” Johnston said. “But we’ve really issued very few fines, and have been giving more warnings than anything else. There’s so much confusion out there and people are writing and posting things online without conferring with any officials.”
The Key West Chamber of Commerce acknowledged the same confusion, writing to its members, “The Chamber has been following the posted judgements of Governor DeSantis’ executive order, and we recognize there are conflicting interpretations between the county and city. At this time, our guidance is, on masks: Err on the side of caution. On social distancing inside an establishment: Per the governor, businesses are permitted to run at 100% capacity. If they want to adhere to social distancing, that is an individual business’s decision.”
The one bright spot amid the confusion, the mayor added, is that so many Key West businesses want to continue to provide a safe environment for their staff and customers and thus are still requiring masks upon entry.
“In fact, a local Facebook group called 5 Star Safety Reviews lists various local businesses that continue to adhere to the mask requirements to let people know safety is their top concern,” Johnston said.
Signs along U.S. 1 throughout the Florida Keys still contain messages of the mask requirement as motorists enter the Keys. And signs remain on business doors to wear a mask upon entry. Those eating at restaurants also must wear a mask until seated.
As for the executive order, DeSantis said it’s time to end penalties against people for social distancing and start working constructively with them.
“All these fines we’re going to hold in abeyance and hope we can move forward in a way that’s more collaborative,” he said.
Bob Eadie, health officer for Monroe County, said individuals need to take responsibility for their own health. Wearing masks is one of the most important measures to help prevent the spread based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Eadie said.
“Going forward with where we are, I think everybody should heed that advice,” he said. “The governor was very clear that the pandemic has not gone away. There’s still infections in Florida, but it’s gone down a great deal.”