Gov. DeSantis gives in, issues statewide order to Floridians to remain in their homes

Gov. Ron DeSantis announces a statewide stay-at-home order during a news conference in his Capitol office on April 1, 2020. Since then, he's drawn criticism for responses to COVID-19 that critics see as lax. Screenshot image.

Under growing pressure from critics and a rising number of coronavirus infections and deaths, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday issued a statewide stay-at-home order that directs everybody in Florida to remain in their homes for the next 30 days — with some exceptions.

Notably, the order allows attendance at “religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship.”

And it allows recreational activities, such as walking, hiking, running, hunting, biking, and swimming, and taking care of pets and loved ones, as long as people observe social-distancing guidelines.

The lockdown begins April 3, at 12:01 a.m. and continues to April 30.

The order tells senior citizens and people with significant medical conditions to remain at home and “take all measures to limit the risk of exposure to COVID-19.”

Furthermore, “all persons in Florida shall limit their movements and personal interactions outside of their home to only those necessary to obtain or provide essential services or conduct essential activities.”

The order defines essential services by referring to guidelines issued by Miami-Dade County and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that stipulate a wide range of industries, including defense, energy, food, transportation, health care, information technology, and critical manufacturing.

The exemption for religious services is remarkable in light of the arrest this week of Tampa megachurch pastor Howard-Browne for insisting on holding Sunday services. He faces charges of unlawful assembly and violating public health emergency rules enacted by Hillsborough County.

The order comes at a time of the holiest of religious holidays, including Passover and Easter.

Additionally, the order specifies: “A social gathering in a public space is not an essential activity. Local jurisdictions shall ensure that groups of people greater than 10 are not permitted to congregate in any public space.”

The order doesn’t mention criminal sanctions, and the governor played down that possibility.

“If you’re engaged in essential services; if you are seeking essential services like groceries, gas, medicine; if your engaging in essential activity, OK,” DeSantis said. “If not, then you’re going to be protecting yourself, your family, and your fellow Floridians better if you stick close to home,” he said.

DeSantis doesn’t want people informing on their neighbors, either.

“At some point, you know, you do need to just exercise good judgment. The government can’t ham-fist everybody into their bedroom. It’s just not practicable.”

As of Wednesday evening, the Florida Department of Health had reported 101 deaths and 7,773 COVID-19 infections extending within the vast majority of Florida’s 67 counties.

The governor had adamantly resisted a state-wide order for weeks, arguing that local governments were best positioned to protect their citizens and that being too restrictive about people’s movements might inspire push-back.

The only such order he’d issued previously covered only four Southeast Florida counties. Those were Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Monroe. Those first three counties had become the center of the coronavirus pandemic in Florida.

What changed his mind was President Trump’s decision on Sunday to extend the national social-distancing advisory for another 30 days.

That, and the president’s recent change in affect. In fact, DeSantis suggested he wasn’t particularly swayed by University of Washington projections that COVID-19 could kill 179 Floridians per day by May 3 and peak at 6,937 deaths by Aug. 1.

“I’d just say it’s a very serious situation. When you see the president up there, when you’ve seen his demeanor for the last couple of days, that’s not necessarily how he always is. We all look at this and say, ‘This thing is really nasty. It’s something that’s cause a lot of harm to a lot of people.’ And I think that we need to have all levers going,” he said.

The national 30-day extension, coming from a source that until recently had been musing about relaxing the rules by Easter, was “a signal from the president that, look, this is what we’re going to be fighting for a month. There’s not going to be any kind of return to normalcy. People thought Easter, all that. That’s not going to happen,” DeSantis said during a news conference in his Capitol office.

“Even though there’s a lot of places in Florida that have very low infection rates, it makes sense to make this move now,” the governor said.

In fact, there’s a dwindling number of small rural counties that have zero infections, according to Florida Health Department data.

“I did consult with folks in the White House; I did speak with the president about it. He agreed with the approach of focusing on the hot spots,” DeSantis said. “But, at the same time, he understood that this was another 30-day situation and you got to do just what makes the most sense.”

While DeSantis consulted with the White House, Democrats in Florida’s Congressional delegation put pressure on the governor to order a statewide lockdown, and Democrats in the Florida Legislature applied similar pressure.

In addition, DeSantis faced a recent lawsuit on the issue of a statewide lockdown.

Florida has overseen administration of at least 63,000 coronavirus tests, DeSantis said. (As of Wednesday evening, the figure was 68,336.)

Hitting 105,000 tests or so would mean the state has surveyed around one in 200 people. “Once you get that or better, you have a really good sense of how this virus is moving in all the communities.”

“At this point, all the mitigation that we could do is done. There are parts of the state where, you know, that’s going to be tough medicine, but it’s uniform. It’s done. And now I think the testing and really embracing as much as we can there is going to help us the information that we need to make good decision. Not only about how to fight the virus, but how we can eventually get people back to work with the economy.”

DeSantis complained bitterly about the market for medical equipment. Shipments of masks, for example, might arrive or not, he said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if you order 2.5 million masks, and they say they’re going to be there on Friday, and they show up on Friday?”

He declined to label the situation actively criminal but said: “I can tell you, it’s shady as hell, that’s for sure.”

Florida’s highest-ranking Democrat, Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried, welcomed the move.

“When I called for this stay-at-home order nearly two weeks ago, there was a reason. It was necessary to flatten the curve and save lives,” she said in a written statement.

“I said then I would stand with the governor when he issued the order, and I do so now. Thank you, governor, for making the right call. Together, we will fight this virus and preserve the state we love.”

Florida Democratic Party chair Terrie Rizzo was less conciliatory in her own statement:

“It is distressing that Gov. Ron DeSantis waited until the coronavirus had spread to so many Floridians before finally issuing a statewide stay-at-home order. I hope this will finally slow the rise in infections and that his actions are not too late.”