PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — When Governor Ron DeSantis’ “full Phase One” of Florida’s reopening strategy began Monday, all 67 counties read a statewide order that allowed the additional reopening of only a select few business categories, leaving the rest until Phase Two.
It would appear all 67 Florida counties are on the same page, except Pinellas and Hernando counties.
Earlier this week, Pinellas County put out a public notice to businesses and residents allowing the reopening of several business categories that contradict Governor DeSantis’ reopening plan and are not referenced in any Executive Order bearing his signature. On Wednesday, Hernando County followed suit with a similar notice.
Unlike other counties, Pinellas and Hernando counties are allowing the reopening of movie theaters, concert halls, auditoriums, bowling alleys, arcades, and playhouses with applicable restrictions under full Phase One.
However, Executive Order 20-123 only permits the additional reopening of restaurants, retail, museums, libraries, gyms, fitness centers and professional sports venues, all with restrictions.
The confusion stems from interpreting what is the legal definition of DeSantis’ “full Phase One” reopening strategy amid the coronavirus pandemic response. In the Pinellas County public notice and in a Facebook Live hosted by county administrator Barry Burton and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, a 32-page document of reopening strategies published by the Governor’s Reopen Florida Task Force is cited as the guidance allowing the reopenings.
“We’re reading the order and the order says we’re in a full Phase One. Nothing within the order restricted movie theaters. It didn’t restrict bowling alleys either,” Burton said in the live stream on Monday. “All we can do is interpret the order and apply the order.”
While Governor DeSantis’ most recent executive order references “full Phase One” as part of the “Safe. Smart. Step-by-Step. Plan for Florida’s Recovery,” it doesn’t reference the 32-page list of recommendations as an enforceable legal document with executive powers. The list, which clearly states it’s a report of reopening recommendations to Governor DeSantis rather than a report of strategies authored by the Governor himself, has not been adopted or referenced as an executive order by any Florida county or municipality other than Pinellas County and Hernando County, 8 On Your Side found.
Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis and County Commission Vice Chairman John Allocco announced in a Wednesday Facebook Live Q&A that upon consultation with Sheriff Gualtieiri and their respective attorneys, they would be joining Pinellas County in allowing the reopening of movie theaters, concert halls, auditoriums, bowling alleys, arcades, playhouses and casinos. Nienhuis and Allocco also referenced the 32-page document of reopening strategies published by the Governor’s Reopen Florida Task Force.
Pinellas County and Hernando County’s full Phase One guidelines directly contradict a Friday press conference held by Governor DeSantis who said movie theaters would not open under Phase One.
“The only thing we’re not doing [in full Phase One] that the President’s guidelines permitted are the movie theaters,” said Governor DeSantis on Friday in Jacksonville. “I’m not saying we’re never going to do that but I believe, and I’ve been a broken record on this, when you’re in an indoor, closed environment, the virus is more transmissible.”
“Recommendations from my task force were to be a little more robust,” said DeSantis. “But again, we wanted to make sure we were being really cautious with this.”
With sports venues, Governor DeSantis is in favor of reopening professional sport facilities to allow a spectator-less experience for sports to resume in the United States. However, Pinellas and Hernando’s interpretation of full Phase One — which again, comes from the task force recommendations and not the executive order — would permit “large spectator sporting events up to 25 percent of capacity.”
An 8 On Your Side inquiry found that every other county in the Tampa Bay area, including Hillsborough, are not interpreting the full Phase One guidelines in the same way as Pinellas and Hernando. Additionally, not a single county across the state of Florida other than Pinellas and Hernando has put out a public notice permitting the opening of movie theaters, concert halls, auditoriums, bowling alleys, arcades, and playhouses, 8 On Your Side has found.
The City of Tampa sent 8 On Your Side a statement Tuesday afternoon saying they’re only following the executive orders from Governor DeSantis’ office.
“We are following the governor’s order which does not include [those Pinellas County reopenings] as of now,” said city spokeswoman Ashley Bauman.
Through a spokesperson, Hillsborough County representatives told 8 On Your Side they gathered for an extended meeting Tuesday night to further review Pinellas County’s interpretation of full Phase One, but continue to follow the executive orders by Governor DeSantis.
“It is not our practice to comment on another jurisdiction’s interpretation of the Orders issued by the Governor,” said a Hillsborough County spokesperson. “EPG has taken action to align to the Governor’s Orders. County Attorney Christine Beck reviewed that latest Order during [Monday’s] meeting and at this point we remain on that path for now — any deviation from that path would be by EPG action.”
The office of St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman is siding with Pinellas County’s full Phase One interpretation, calling out Governor DeSantis for not “aligning his public remarks with written orders.”
“As Mayor Kriseman stated earlier, he does not intend to restrict the governor’s ‘Full Phase One’ here in St. Pete,” said Kriseman’s Communications Director Benjamin Kirby. “The City of St. Petersburg, like Pinellas County, will follow the governor’s order as written. We are hopeful that Governor DeSantis will begin to align his public remarks with his written orders and that he puts public health at the forefront of every decision.”
Repeated requests to Governor DeSantis’ office for comment and clarification this week were not answered.
Although Pinellas County and Hernando County’s legal authority to permit the reopenings of businesses like movie theaters and concert venues might be in question, 8 On Your Side hasn’t heard of any theaters or concert halls with immediate plans of opening following Monday’s public notice.
Meanwhile, not all local business owners are abiding by what’s included and not included in DeSantis’ executive orders. Some bowling alleys and arcades have decided to reopen in several Tampa Bay counties including Hillsborough, 8 On Your Side has learned.
In Pinellas County, one bowling alley owner, who spoke to 8 On Your Side’s Chip Osowski on Monday night, is elated by the local interpretation of the full Phase One reopening strategy.
“It’s been terrible,” said Maple Lanes General Manager Mark Tibbs of what he’s been through over the last two months. “I mean, every morning when I walk into the building and not see my seniors and my bowlers in here, it’s just heartbreaking.”
Then on Tuesday, Pinellas officials announced they had consulted with the Florida Department of Business and Professional regulation and breweries with food trucks are now allowed to open.
“Julie, our mayor of Dunedin has been working tirelessly on this. She’s been working on weekends, nights, she called me at 9:00 last night, she never stops working,” said Rick Clemo with the House of Beer.
Whether businesses in other Florida counties like breweries, arcades, playhouses and music venues follow Governor DeSantis’ executive orders word-for-word or go by the interpretation made by Pinellas and Hernando counties remains to be seen.
Regardless, by the time we learn which reopening strategy interpretation was legally correct here in Florida, we might be in Phase Two.