Shelter Order Deserves Honest Consideration

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY MAR 28, 2020

Fears of spreading a life-threatening virus have shut down our schools, many or our offices and pretty much every event of any size in Florida.

But local governments have wrestled over what to do with those individuals who will not voluntarily stay home. More than a dozen counties have instituted some type of stay-at-home order. Sarasota County, curiously, does not believe it has the legal authority to do so. And yet, Gov. Ron DeSantis has seemed content to leave decisions to local governments.

He’s caught plenty of guff for that, but if you will entertain me, I might suggest he has a point. Large parts of the Panhandle have not seen a single person test positive for COVID-19, and I’m not certain it makes sense to force people in Panama City to stay inside because several hundred people in Miami have tested positive for the illness.

That said, it’s a worthy question what stops County Commissioners in Sarasota from considering the step. As of Friday, two individuals had already died from COVID-19 in the county. That notably included Terrance McNally, an internationally celebrated playwright who penned The Full Monty, Ragtime and other classics. McNally was eulogized in The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter and The Times of London. But he 81-year-old's death in Sarasota wasn’t enough reason to order Sarasota County’s above average age population to shelter in place.

The concern, outlined in a staff memo by County Attorney Frederick Elbrecht, seems to be that DeSantis hasn’t expressly authorized counties to issue their own curfews or to order business closures. The power can, and has, been delegated after hurricanes. But “at present, during the initial onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Governor has not issued an executive order delegating the explicit authority to impose curfews or to close or otherwise affect private business operations.”

In Collier County, commissioners just declined to impose an executive order, and at the time discussed how a similar community crisis hasn’t happened in Florida in 100 years. Then, power belonged solely with the state to impose such restrictions, but that was before the advent of home rule. Commissioners ultimately chose to table an order there, but attorneys expressed confidence they could defend an order in court.

This, of course, assumes anyone will challenge the authority of the county compared to the Governor. It strikes me immediately that there was no such concern when DeSantis rebuffed public pressure to close all Florida beaches during spring break, but instead left it to local governments.

Two things seem clear about DeSantis’ approach to this disaster so far. One is that he’s reluctant to do something that impacts all Floridians if he can help it. The other is he seems completely content to let local leaders do as they choose.

There’s a contingent of political activists who view any order from the government as a complete violation of their personal freedom, public health concerns or not. There’s also a surprising number of people who continue to treat the coronavirus like an imagined hoax, despite at last count 43 in Sarasota County testing positive for COVID-19 in the 27 days since Florida’s first coronavirus patient was treated at Doctor’s Hospital of Sarasota.

Perhaps county commissioners, like those in Collier, would ultimately side with this faction. That is the crowd most willing to show in person at hearings right now. But if so, that’s a decision local officials should make and explain to their constituents. They should not hide behind an unpopular legal interpretation when the Governor seems unlikely to challenge any decision.

Consider a stay-at-home order. At the very least, admit it’s worth a conversation.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media.

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