ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) – A fight over fines! The city of St. Petersburg wants to punish businesses that officials said repeatedly ignored COVID-19 safety guidelines. But a lawyer for one of those businesses said the city doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on.
The owner of Jack’s London Grill said the community has shown amazing support through the pandemic, buying gift cards, and getting to-go orders. But now, they’re one of many businesses feeling attacked by the city.
“Instead of putting their forces into explaining they seem they just sent people out to penalize,” said Peter Leonavicius, owner of Jacks London Grill
Leonavicius said with masks, social distancing, and sanitizing they have and continue to take precautions against COVID-19 extremely seriously. Leonavicius claims he was surprised to be one of about a dozen businesses facing fines from the city.
“It turned into feeling persecuted and nervous. Even though we’re doing everything we possibly could,” Leonavicius said.
“It specifically said no more fines,” said Leonavicius’s Attorney Kevin Hennessy with Lewis Longman & Walker.
Hennessy said the city’s fines could be illegal going against an executive order by Gov. DeSantis.
“We have a difference between the state and the city in deciding what can be done locally,” Hennessy said.
Gov. DeSantis filed an executive order in March that cancels all fines related to local government COVID-19 restrictions on people and business.
The order states any fines imposed between March 1, 2020, and March 10, 2021, fines imposed by any political subdivision of Florida related to local government COVID-19 restrictions are canceled.
The order goes on to say it can serve as a defense to the collection of those fines.
The order only applies to local government and not any enforcement or COVID-19 related orders taken by the state.
When 8 On Your Side asked the city for their side of the story but the cities attorneys say they “refrain from commenting on ongoing litigation”.
Now, some of the business owners said they are left feeling confused and disappointed.
“The city could have behaved less aggressively, it seemed like the communication was a big issue. Instead of helping or helping us understand it was basically, here’s a fine,” said Leonavicius.
On Thursday a St. Petersburg judge set another hearing for June, giving all the businesses time to file for a motion to dismiss and for the city to respond.