‘Gov. DeSantis loves to create confusion:’ Orange County mayor says strike teams will still visit businesses

Mayor calls governor’s move to overturn fines ‘somewhat hypocritical’

Orange County strike teams will visit businesses ahead of New Year’s Eve

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings weighed in on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new executive order overturning fines levied by local governments for coronavirus violations, saying the order “creates confusion” and is “somewhat hypocritical.”

DeSantis issued the order Wednesday evening that covers business fines issued between March 1, 2020 and the date of the order.

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Demings is one of the few mayors across the state who made the decision to financially penalize businesses for violating the county mask mandate and social distancing protocols as the deadly virus spread in the community.

The county’s strike teams first started performing business inspections last summer but it wasn’t until December 2020 that they started to issue fines to repeat offenders.

The mayor said overall compliance is at 99% and in the past 170 days, teams have conducted 9,394 inspections and issued 156 warnings and 28 citations. He believes creating the teams and instituting fines was the right move.

“I believe Gov. DeSantis loves to create confusion. There is nothing unprecedented about local governments trying to provide for and protect its residents during a pandemic. We have been decisive and taken action when the governor was slow to act. We received many calls from our residents demanding businesses and individuals be held accountable for failing to take appropriate precautions to stop the spread of a deadly virus, which has infected 2 million people in our state with 117,000, of them infected in Orange County alone,” Demings said Thursday.

He noted that the order only applies to fines issued by local governments.

“Perhaps it can even be debated that the governor’s inaction to enforce health and safety guidelines likely contributed to the spread of the virus in our state. I find it somewhat hypocritical that the governor provided clemency for fines or violations of local laws but let stand fines imposed by the state of Florida,” Demings said. “Frankly, that simply is not right.”

He said he’ll consult with the county’s attorney to determine how to move forward. He still expects strike teams to visit businesses and the county will continue to maintain a list of violators. It’s even possible that fines could still be issued since the executive order only forgives past fines, not the ones that have yet to be issued.

Either way, it could be complicated and he’s also bracing for the possibility of having to refund businesses that have already paid off their penalties.

“But those individuals who receive subsequent fines, you know, the governor said in his executive order all they have to do is point to his executive order, you know, it’s unenforceable, they would have clemency. And so we will have this conundrum that would exist in that situation, then that individual theoretically would have to apply for clemency or what have you. So it created some challenges for us, needless to say,” Demings said.

The mayor claims the governor’s office never consulted him or gave him a head’s up before the order was issued and he doesn’t know how DeSantis came to the decision.

“Perhaps the governor was feeling somewhere in this marginalized and so he took action. In spite of all of that, I may not like some of the actions that the governor takes but we still have to work with the state to make sure that we take care of the people here in Orange County,” Demings said.

Even without fines, he expects most restaurants, shops and other establishments will comply by the coronavirus rules knowing that customers will only patronize places where they feel safe.

Those cries from citizens who expressed their fears about violations are a major part of the reason the mayor formed the strike teams in the first place.

“We took action, we did something about it and we were not, you know, just complacent with what was occurring and being indecisive. It wasn’t about the politics here,” Demings said.

Despite the confusion over the executive order, the mayor said Orange County is doing well overall with a 97% recovery rate and a 5.2% 14-day average positivity rate.

Part of that improvement is credited to the vaccinations being done daily at the Orange County Convention Center and FEMA’s site at Valencia College’s West Campus. Demings reminded residents that eligibility will expand to those 60 and over starting Monday, so anyone in that group is urged to sign up for an appointment at the convention center when the portal opens Friday by going to ocfl.net/vaccine.

To help with the vaccination effort, the mayor also announced that Orange County will be working with the state emergency management department to launch a new pilot program to help residents in underserved communities get inoculated from their homes.

More details on that initiative are expected to be announced next week.

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