Orange County mayor declares local state of emergency amid rising COVID-19 hospitalizations, infections

County employees will now be required to wear masks inside county facilities

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings signed an executive order Wednesday declaring a local state of emergency.

“What that means is this: I will now urge our residents and visitors, vaccinated and unvaccinated to wear a mask when in an indoor space with others. We want our residents, businesses and visitors to follow the updated CDC guidelines to make sure there won’t be another shutdown like we experienced last year,” the mayor said.

The announcement came one day after Demings spoke exclusively to News 6 about his plans to make “adjustments” to the county’s COVID-19 rules and guidelines.

The mayor also issued an internal audit requiring county employees to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30.

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“There are 4,200, nonunion county employees who will have until Aug. 31, to get their first shot. Then they must have the second shot by the end of September. For the 3,450 or so union employees, the requirement will be negotiated with a bargaining unit,” Demings said.

The requirement does come with two “broad” exemptions, which were explained by the county’s attorney, Jeffrey J. Newton.

“There are two specific legal exemptions that you typically hear in this kind of environment where there is a mandatory vaccination of employees, and one of those exemptions is a sincere religious belief,” Newton said. “And the other exemption relates to medical conditions that the employee may have — and there are certain requirements, along the lines of the American Disabilities Act, that would fit those medical condition requirements.”

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The mayor also noted that this requirement does not extend to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, because he is an elected constitutional officer with purview over his office.

“What I have heard the undersheriff say today is that the sheriff is committed to an increase in the number of his deputy sheriffs who he desires to get vaccinated,” Demings said. “But he stopped short, it’s my understanding, of a mandate but he’s trying to offer an incentive to those employees with an extra day off or something like that in order to encourage them to go (get vaccinated}.”

Prior to announcing the local state of emergency, Demings ran through some of the numbers the county is seeing in terms of surging COVID-19 cases. The mayor said the Department of Health reported 1,371 new COVID-19 cases in Orange County on Tuesday.

He added the 14-day rolling positivity rate now sits at 15.58%. Health officials have said that a positivity rate below 10% is needed to slow community spread of the virus.

“Six weeks ago our 14-day positivity rate was 3.7%. So right now we have four times higher than on June the 16th,” Demings said.

Demings also painted a grim picture of how the surge in cases is impacting area hospitals.

“The crisis continues at our area hospitals and they are seeing a significant and swift, increase in COVID patients,” he said. “At AdventHealth, they tell me the rate of the increase is concerning. They are seeing the fastest rate of increase in COVID patients since the start of the pandemic.”

Demings said for the seven-county region AdventHealth serves their all-time high for COVID patients was on July 17, 2020 at 841 patients.

“On Monday of this week, they had 811 patients system-wide. Around 95% of the people hospitalized in the AdventHealth system for coronavirus unvaccinated,” Demings said, adding “Orlando Health reports equally discouraging numbers. Back on May 27, there were 61 COVID patients in the Orlando Health system. Yesterday, there were 286 patients. Nearly four and a half times the number of coronavirus patients since the end of May.”

Despite the discouraging numbers, Demings did offer some encouraging news about vaccinations in the county.

A few weeks ago about 30% to 40% of those getting vaccinated were coming in for their first dose, now those numbers are 60% to 70%.

“So we flipped that now,” he said. “That means that our residents are listening and they are increasingly getting vaccinated. That’s good news.”

The mayor stressed the importance of increased vaccinations and masking indoors by pointing to the potential economic impact of the increase in new infections. He held up the example that a surgical conference that was planned to take place at the Orange County Convention Center had been canceled on Wednesday.

“That will result in a $12 to $15 million economic loss for our community,” Demings said.

He urged businesses — including the county’s largest employers, Disney World and Universal Studios — to encourage their employees to get vaccinated and require guests to wear masks.

“I want — not just Disney and Universal — but I want all of our businesses to hear our appeal that if we all take these actions together, then we can significantly slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus within our community and bring those numbers down, reduce the hospitalizations and allow them to stay open,” Demings said.

Guests at Disney World will have to wear masks again regardless of vaccination status starting July 30.

The mayor’s local state of emergency may face challenges because of a new state law, SB 1924, which was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in May. The law requires emergency orders to come in 7-day increments and local governments must “satisfy demanding and continuous justifications” for those orders to extend further, but only to a maximum of 42 days. It also gives the governor the power to invalidate a local emergency order.

Read the mayor’s executive order below:

The office of Gov. Ron DeSantis released a statement on the latest move by Orange County:

“Mayor Demings acknowledged that local governments cannot enforce mandates by, e.g., imposing fines and penalties on citizens. He also stated that voluntary action is just as effective, if not more so, than government mandates – which is not inconsistent with Governor DeSantis’ position. The Governor believes in conveying accurate information to the public, making decisions based on empirical evidence, and trusting citizens to decide what is best for themselves and their families. It is not the role of any level of government – local, state, or federal – to micromanage people’s lives, shut down their businesses indefinitely, or fine them for declining to wear a face covering. Based on what the Mayor said today, it does not sound like he intends to enforce his guidance by collecting fines or pressing charges against those who do not follow it, so he would not run afoul of state law. In short, the Mayor is within his right to make that declaration, but it does not give him the authority to impose penalties on the public for noncompliance with his recommendations. From what he said at the press conference, though, it doesn’t seem that he is threatening to impose penalties. It appears that he acknowledged the limitations on local authorities and the rights of his constituents to make their own informed decisions.”

About the Author:

Thomas Mates is a digital storyteller for News 6 and He also produces the podcast Florida Foodie. Thomas is originally from Northeastern Pennsylvania and worked in Portland, Oregon before moving to Central Florida in August 2018. He graduated from Temple University with a degree in Journalism in 2010.