‘On the cusp of danger:’ Orange County mayor signs order to fine businesses for COVID-19 violations

New rule begins on Sunday

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Saying that it’s time to hold the “bad actors” accountable, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings on Friday signed an emergency executive order that will allow fines to be levied against local businesses that repeatedly disregard COVID-19 safety measures.

A draft of the executive order was issued Thursday evening to the media but Demings made it official on Friday. During a news conference that afternoon, he explained why he opted to take punitive measures against business owners.

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“Our goal is simple: it is to target the few bad actors. I call them bad actors because these are the ones who act like they care about the personal safety of others, when in fact they only care about their bottom line. They put profit over people. The businesses who are the good actors and which comply with this order need not worry about the penalties,” Demings said.

In recent weeks he’d said that he had the authority to financially punish business owners who repeatedly violate guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but he was hesitant to do so up until now.

When asked, the mayor said there was no real final straw that influenced his decision and he said it’s more about keeping the COVID-19 situation under control locally. He cited the fact the coronavirus compliance strike teams have had to visit a number of businesses multiple times that don’t seem willing to take safety measures, that we don’t yet known the impact from the Thanksgiving holiday and that we’re approaching colder months as well as a busy travel season.

“(My advisers) all have said to me, that we are on the cusp of danger going forward. I don’t want to find ourselves in a situation where we are exceeding hospital capacity when we could have taken action early to preclude that from happening. So, I think timing is everything,” Demings said, adding that he wants to prevent another surge in hospitalizations and new infections.

The order requires all businesses within Orange County -- including the cities and unincorporated areas -- to require masks, set up social distancing markers and have plexiglass or barriers in place.

According to the executive order, a fine issued by law enforcement or code enforcement will not exceed $500. If the fine is posed by a special magistrate, that number goes to $1,000 per day for a first offense and $5,000 per day for subsequent offenses.

For the most serious violations that are deemed “irreparable or irreversible in nature,” the amount could swell to $15,000 per violation.

Demings said code enforcement officers and law enforcement officers will try to be consistent in how they decide which businesses are fined.

“Generally speaking, we will visit a business to gain compliance. We want to be proactive to assist our businesses in remaining open. So we will give them instructions on what they can do to comply with the executive order, to comply with those CDC guidelines. We will go back and re-inspect businesses who we initially found to be noncompliant. We have to look at the totality of the circumstances at that time. If the staff believes that the business has attempted to comply, we’re not there to be really punitive at that point, we want to gain compliance, voluntary compliance. Likely if that staff member has to go back for a third time and they’re still noncompliant, they will likely be looking at the penalty of or not to exceed $500 for that initial fine,” the mayor said.

He reiterated that businesses that have been following the rules and taking precautions don’t need to be worried. His office plans to make public which establishments end up facing fines.

Demings also said he’s not worried about his executive order potentially conflicting with the governor’s executive order that prohibits local governments from limiting restaurant capacity or fining individuals for violating mask mandates or similar rules. He said he hasn’t been in communication with Gov. Ron DeSantis about the new measure.

“I really don’t feel like I have to go to the governor to ask permission to be the mayor of Orange County,” Demings said.

You can read the order, which goes into effect Sunday at 12:01 a.m., in its entirety below.

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