Orange County mayor says protests could delay next phase of reopening due to coronavirus

Mayors warns large gatherings could cause spike in cases

George Floyd protesters gather in downtown Orlando

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Orange County’s mayor is warning the community of protesting during the pandemic, saying unsafe demonstrations could increase the spread of coronavirus.

“What I saw happen this weekend was numerous demonstrations occurred in our community. Large crowds would gather and there were many individuals who were not wearing facial masks and were in immediate surroundings of each other,” Mayor Jerry Demings said Monday during one of the county’s regularly scheduled coronavirus briefings.

“That means if one of them had the virus, that virus would spread very quickly and that’s in conflict of what we’ve been trying to do for many months," he said.

The mayor’s remarks follow an active weekend filled with community protests demanding justice for the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Local leaders said the Central Florida protests were mostly peaceful, with only some taking a dangerous turn. A protest blocked State Road 408 Friday evening, protesters mirroring the demonstration Sunday as they blocked an I-4 on-ramp. Orlando police said officers were forced to deploy tear gas after protestors started to throw rocks, bottles and construction debris at authorities.

Chief Orlando Rolón said 30 demonstrators were arrested after Sunday’s events.

Orange County leaders issued a curfew Sunday, saying it was a proactive approach to keep everyone safe on the streets and safe from the virus.

“The decision to institute the curfew really had nothing to do with trying to stifle individuals from being able to express their First Amendment Rights -- our goal is to stop the spread of the virus and I take that role very seriously in this community,” Demings said.

Law enforcement agencies responded to looting and break-in calls over the weekend after hours-long protests lasted well into the night. Store owners had their businesses boarded up Monday, as they worked to replace broken windows.

Asked if he thought Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will move forward with the next stage of reopening the state amid the virus, Demings said it might be difficult.

“It’s very difficult to fully reopen and go to the next phases if you have property damage and violence going on at the same time," Demings said. “So I think we’re going to have to think logically before the government will likely authorize moving to phase two.”

The mayor added that recent events will make it difficult to ask the governor to roll back on more restrictions. Demings said the governor would likely want to see major metropolitan areas at peace to continue moving forward in a healthy and productive wave.

Dr. Raul Pino, the Florida Department of Health’s lead public health official within the county said the recovery rate currently sits at 87%. He says although the county has seen an increase in a number of cases, the increase has been slow and not dramatic.

“The data continues to trend in the right direction,” he clarified.

Pino chimed in on the recent gatherings, saying protestors need to be cautious.

“The issue is the same. Large gatherings of people not wearing masks or sanitizing will increase the number of cases if the spread would occur,” Pino said. “Protestors could wear masks. My concern is also the shouting and agitated state of mind, hyperventilating.”

Pino emphasized the county has been careful about diffusing large gatherings and reopening businesses, asking protestors to keep those efforts in mind.

With the promising public health information, the mayor once again emphasized the importance of staying safe and taking further precautions as the county works to eliminate COVID-19.

“I do understand the passion of many people who have been impacted in the emotional aspect of George Floyd, but at that same token, we can’t stop the efforts of stopping the virus in this county. I think the role of the government, is to protect the citizenry from itself, so that’s what we are going to continue to do,” Demings said.