Florida Gov. DeSantis invalidates COVID-19 restrictions statewide, says there's no need 'to be policing people at this point'

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended local COVID-19 emergency orders Monday and signed a proposal lawmakers approved last week that limits the government's ability to impose mask requirements and other social distancing measures used to combat the coronavirus this past year.

The measure, Senate Bill 2006, also makes permanent DeSantis' executive order that prohibits "vaccine passports," saying it is unnecessary "to be policing people at this point."

"I think if you are saying that you are really saying you don't believe in the vaccines, you don't believe in the data, you don't believe in science," DeSantis said at a bill signing ceremony in St. Petersburg.

The legislation also makes it more difficult for local governments to order measures such as wearing masks or place limits on businesses by requiring emergency orders to be narrowly tailored and be in seven-day increments totaling no more than 42 days.

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.

DeSantis' executive order to strike down local virus restrictions does not apply to mask mandates or social distancing policies issued by businesses, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

The news comes at the same time that Florida continues to log thousands of new COVID cases each week, though the week-over-week totals are significantly decreasing.

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As the measure wound through committees, opponents warned that the restrictions would generate lawsuits and could have other unintended consequences, such as tourists avoiding the state because of health concerns.

They also questioned whether the measure will provoke a First Amendment challenge because it denies private businesses and schools the right not to associate with unvaccinated consumers.

While DeSantis says that eliminating local emergency orders won't bar stores and businesses from requiring masks, House Democratic Co-Leader Evan Jenne said it will heighten pressure on them to lift such demands.

"Look, get ready for a whole lot of confusion," Jenne said. "Just like with all the other executive orders that came out over the last 13-14 months. A lot of confusion and a lot of people not knowing exactly what do they have the right to do...it'll definitely pressure them to lift" the requirements.

DeSantis said the restrictions included in the bill are based in science and provides a road map for dealing with future health emergencies.

“I think this creates a structure that’s going to be a little bit more respectful of people’s businesses, jobs, schools and personal freedoms," he said.

The executive order's language was not immediately released and was not available on the governor's website as of midday Monday.

COVID-19 has killed more than 35,000 Floridians and infected more than 2.2 million people in the state, according to the Florida Department of Health.

The past week, the state averaged nearly 5,000 new cases daily and recorded a test positivity rate of 7.9% - well above the 5% the World Health Organization recommends before lifting restrictions.

State Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said she thinks DeSantis is moving in the wrong direction with the suspension of emergency orders.

“It’s easy to forget we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. We still have new strains of this virus that are running rampant,” said Driskell.

Critics also note DeSantis is drawing heightened attention in Republican circles as a potential White House contender in 2024.

"I’m wondering if this is in part of a larger plan for a potential run at a larger office, which I think is in the offing here in the next couple of years,” said House Democratic Co-Leader Evan Jenne, after DeSantis' bill signing ceremony.

DeSantis issued a work from home order and other emergency edicts starting last March when the coronavirus was first reported in the state.

He resisted mandatory mask orders and pushed back against more restrictive measures adopted by local governments and school boards.

Contributing: John Kennedy and Jay Cannon, USA TODAY Network; Associated Press

Follow reporter James Call on Twitter: @CallTallahassee

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis lifts COVID restrictions statewide