DeSantis issues COVID-19 ‘Safer-at-Home’ order

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Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order Wednesday mandating that Florida’s 21 million residents stay in their homes through April 30 unless they’re seeking or providing essential services and activities. The order went into effect at 12:01 a.m. this morning. You can view Executive Order 20-91 at https://bit.ly/3aGAIA0.

For weeks, DeSantis took a more hands-off approach than many of his fellow governors across the country by allowing local officials to set limitations and rules they felt were appropriate for dealing with the coronavirus in their own areas of the state. In contrast, 34 other states were already under stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders when DeSantis took action Wednesday.

As a result, the governor faced mounting criticism that culminated earlier this week with a letter from 13 of Florida’s representatives in Congress who implored him to issue a stay-at-home order as positive tests for the coronavirus began to take a dramatic uptick in the state.

This week between Sunday and Wednesday alone has added nearly 4,000 confirmed cases, representing a near doubling of positive COVID-19 test results statewide.

Locally, numbers in Nassau County, while still comparatively low, have faced similar increases statistically over the past 10 days. The county’s first case, reported March 11, remained its only case until last Wednesday, March 25. Since then, 13 more residents have tested positive as of 11 a.m. Thursday.

Three of those cases have health officials in Nassau especially concerned because the patients reported no history of travel and no known contact with any other individuals who have tested positive for the coronavirus, suggesting community spread might be at play. 

In a Nassau County Sheriff’s Office post on Facebook Thursday afternoon sent in reply to a question about whether the unknown origin of several Nassau County cases qualifies as “community spread,” the NCSO said, “It would appear that way. The health department is still investigating. That’s why everyone needs to take the order seriously and stay home to stop the spread. The sooner we all comply the sooner we can get back to our normal lives.”

Nassau County Emergency Management Director Greg Foster told News4Jax on Wednesday, “That is one of the things we’re keeping an eye on is if we are seeing some type of spread within the community.”

Then, Foster alerted media Thursday afternoon about two more positive cases that were subsequently added to the county’s official tally as of 6 p.m. Thursday, bringing the county's total of confirmed cases to 16. First responders from the Fernandina Beach Fire Department and Nassau County Fire Rescue, he said, were dispatched Wednesday to separate calls at different locations in the county. The two patients involved in the calls subsequently tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in three members of the FBFD being exposed to the coronavirus and needing to be quarantined.

DeSantis’ new order would seem to come just in time to help the county contain such further spread but it appears to lack any “teeth” or punitive actions for residents disregarding it. The governor said as much during a press conference Wednesday when he announced his executive action: “We don’t know how all these measures are going to work, but we’ll figure it out on the back end.”

The latest order is also accompanied by extensive lists specifying the services and activities that qualify as “essential.”

Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper mentioned those exceptions in a video posted to the county’s Emergency Management Facebook page: “Remember, there are exceptions to this order, some of which include going out to buy food, medicine, or going to work or church. … You won’t need a letter, a pass, or placard to travel on our county roadways during this time. Please remember,  although this change won’t be easy, taking it seriously will help stop the spread of COVID-19, save lives and help us all to return to normal a lot sooner.”

The link to the executive order at the top of this story includes the lists of exceptions mentioned.

mmiller@fbnewsleader.com