FL counties keeping mask mandates even though Gov. DeSantis won’t allow penalties for violators

Novel coronavirus SARS CoV2, which causes COVID-19. Credit: National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Local governments in Florida appear determined to keep mask mandates on their books against COVID-19 even though Gov. Ron DeSantis has thrown open the doors to businesses in the state and promised to quash any penalties imposed for noncompliance.

DeSantis proclaimed Friday that the state’s 67 counties are entering Phase 3 of his reopening plan and issued an executive suspending fines and penalties associated with COVID-19 violations against individuals.

“Suspends all outstanding fines and penalties, and the collection of such moving forward, applied against individuals related to COVID-19,” his executive order reads.

But local governments still have some jurisdiction in regulating businesses.

For instance, businesses in Palm Beach County are not exempt from fines associated with noncompliance of the face mask mandate, Deputy County Administrator Jon Van Arnam said in an email Monday to the Florida Phoenix.

According to Palm Beach County rules, “all patrons must wear facial coverings except while actively consuming food and beverage” and “staff must wear facial coverings during all in-person interactions with the public.”

“The county’s facial covering mandate remains in place. Although the governor’s order suspends the collection of fines and penalties enforced upon individuals, it does not preempt local governments from assessing fines or otherwise penalizing businesses that violate emergency orders including mask mandates,” Arnam said.

“Palm Beach County has in the past, and will continue as long as the facial covering order is in place, to educate and assist with compliance before fines or penalties against businesses are levied.”

Hillsborough County officials reiterated that its face mask requirement is still in effect, too, despite DeSantis’ order. Wearing a face covering is mandatory in Hillsborough County while inside public businesses, according to its website.

“While the governor’s order issued on Sept. 25 no longer allows fines to be issued, protective face coverings are still required,” Hillsborough County said in a Saturday announcement.

The governor’s order also loosened statewide restrictions on businesses such as restaurants and bars, with restaurants authorized to operate at full capacity if they like. Local governments may continue to limit bars and pubs but not lower than 50 percent capacity.

In Miami-Dade County, Mayor Carlos Giménez addressed the order in a press release Saturday, saying that “all businesses should ensure masks are worn by employees and the public at all times.”

And the county’s 11 p.m. curfew will remain in place, under which violators can be charged “with a second-degree criminal misdemeanor that sets a maximum $500 fine and/or 180 days in jail.”

Gimenez said in a written statement: “I want to stress that we are at a critical juncture to continue to save lives and get our economy moving forward. Even as all businesses are being opened, everyone must continue to take personal responsibility and wear facial coverings in public places, stay at least six feet away from others, and wash their hands often to stop the spread of the virus, particularly to protect those with high-risk medical conditions and our senior citizens.”

Leon County, site of the state Capitol, didn’t lift its face mask mandate either, County Commission chair Bryan Desloge said in a telephone conversation with the Phoenix.

“The only impact it has is that we’re not allowed to have a penalty,” he said. “In our case, we do have a mask mandate. The mask mandate is still in place,” he said, adding: “I don’t think we’ve issued any fines since we’ve started this.”

The county will hold discussions on the face mask requirement at a meeting scheduled for Tuesday at 3 p.m.

“My gut is we keep that mandate in place,” Desloge said.

Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Sue Dick, however, argued the governor’s “strategy has been intended to address the dual priorities of protecting Floridians’ physical health and our state’s fiscal health, too. He has provided  a lot of appropriate flexibility for local communities and every family to make informed decisions about what’s best for them. We encourage all businesses and their employees to continue practicing defined safety measures.”