- Associated Press - Monday, May 3, 2021

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis moved to suspend all remaining COVID-19 restrictions imposed by communities across his state, signing into law on Monday freshly passed legislation giving him sweeping powers to invalidate local emergency measures put in place during the pandemic - including mask mandates, limitations on business operations and the shuttering of schools.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” DeSantis said, “but I think this creates a structure that’s going to be a little bit more respectful, I think, of people’s businesses, jobs, schools and personal freedom.”

The Republican governor has been touting his record on the coronavirus as he readies to launch his reelection campaign and as he considers a run for president in 2024.

Even as DeSantis has urged Floridians to get vaccinated, he has become among the most nationally prominent Republicans to push back on mask mandates and other precautions that federal health officials have recommended in the continuing battle against the pandemic.

Some mayors, particularly those aligned with the Democratic Party, decried Republican-led preemptions as a power grab against local government’s ability to control a potential resurgence of the coronavirus but also restrict their ability to respond to future public health emergencies.

To date, more than 2.2 million Floridians have been infected with the disease. More than 35,000 have died, but in per capita deaths Florida has fared better than most states. It has seen 166 per 100,000 as compared with the highest rate, in New Jersey, of 287 per 100,000.

While daily infection and deaths have gone down, the pandemic is far from over. On Monday, there were some 3,100 Floridians hospitalized with COVID-19 as the primary diagnosis.

“It feels like he’s spiking the ball on the 10-yard line,” said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, whose city is within a county that was among the hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak. “He’s been following political ideology more than science during this whole pandemic.”

Last week, DeSantis extended Florida’s state of emergency for another two months, but the governor has expressed confidence that the worst was over as more people get vaccinated. The governor has taken credit for the state’s economic turnaround and the slowdown in infections.

While the law DeSantis signed Monday goes into effect July 1, the Republican governor said he would issue an executive order to more quickly enact some provisions of the new law, including the preemption of existing coronavirus measures enacted by local governments such as mask mandates.

“Today, in preempting both local governments AND businesses from keeping their establishments safe, Ron DeSantis decided he cares not about public health, but power,” tweeted St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

“To be clear, cities like St. Pete, Tampa, Orlando, Miami and Miami Beach, saved Florida and the governor’s behind throughout this pandemic. Can you imagine if each city had been led by Ron DeSantis? How many lives would have been lost? What would our economy look like today?” Kriseman said in another tweet.

The law codifies much of the actions DeSantis had already taken, including pre-empting local governments from enforcing mask mandates, but it also would give the governor - DeSantis and those after him - broad authority during future public health crises to set aside local edicts that do not conform to those issued by the state.

Keeping such measures in place, the Republican governor said during a news conference, undermines confidence in the coronavirus vaccines.

“Folks that are saying that they need to be policing people at this point,” DeSantis said, “are saying you don’t believe in the vaccines, you don’t believe in the data, you don’t believe in the science.”

Even as DeSantis advertised the move as a way to protect businesses and workers hurt by pandemic-related shutdowns and business restrictions, the new law would also ban businesses from requiring patrons to show proof vaccinations in order to get service.

The ban was already in place under an executive order he signed in late March. That order also barred government entities from issuing so-called “vaccine passports.”

The impending law directs state health officials to draft a public health emergency management plan to serve as a template for future outbreaks. It also requires state officials to keep at the ready a supply of protective equipment.

DeSantis has bristled against federal mandates and has followed his own priorities on some pandemic-related matters, including prioritizing the distribution of vaccines to the state’s oldest residents ahead of some people, including grocery story workers, who federal officials suggested should get more immediate priority during the early days of the vaccine rollout.

“Governor DeSantis failed to lead during the pandemic, leaving local officials as the last line of defense against the pandemic, forcing them to make the hard decisions to save lives. This is a continuation of that immoral lack of leadership, and another reason why he doesn’t deserve to be re-elected,” said Rep. Charlie Crist, a former Florida governor, who is expected to announce as soon as Tuesday if he will seek to make a bid to oust DeSantis from the governor’s mansion. Crist is a Democrat.

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