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News about coronavirus in Florida and around the world is constantly emerging. It's hard to stay on top of it all but Health News Florida and WUSF can help. Our responsibility at WUSF News is to keep you informed, and to help discern what’s important for your family as you make what could be life-saving decisions.

Florida Executive Order Says Seniors ‘Shall Stay At Home,’ But Does That Mean They Have To?

A resident drives his golf card down what usually is a busy street in The Villages, Florida.
A resident drives his golf card down what usually is a busy street in The Villages, Florida.

The so-called “Safer At Home” Executive Order issued by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on April 1 says senior citizens and people with significant underlying medical conditions “shall stay at home and take all measures to limit the risk of exposure to COVID-19,” but it seems that is more of a suggestion than a mandate.

People 65 and older and anyone with underlying medical conditions are at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19, the CDC says.

Florida’s numbers show the outsize threat coronavirus poses to older people. As of Friday afternoon, 25% of the 23,443 confirmed cases among Florida residents were in people over 65. Of those hospitalized with COVID-19, 54% were 65 or older  — and of the 686 COVID-19 deaths among Florida residents, 82% were people 65 or older.

While the vulnerability of seniors is clear, the language of the governor’s executive order has left some wondering: Are seniors and people with underlying medical conditions not allowed to leave their homes? Would they be stopped by police if they do?

“It sounded like people over 65 had to stay in their house and we couldn’t even leave our house,” said Susan Aertker, 66, who lives in Jacksonville’s Mandarin area. “It almost seemed like we couldn’t take a walk.”

Aertker’s confusion about the executive order stemmed from the use of the legally controversial word “shall,” which, according to Black’s Law Dictionary, has several definitions, including “has a duty to” (is mandatory), “should,” and “may” (has permission to).

The governor’s office later clarified that senior citizens and people with significant medical conditions can leave their homes to “obtain or provide essential services or conduct essential activities,” such as going to the grocery store or on a walk.

But the word “shall” is also used in the next paragraph of Executive Order 20-91: “… all persons in Florida shall limit their movements and personal interactions outside of their home to only those necessary to obtain or provide essential services or conduct essential activities.”

According to the order, essential activities include attending religious services, recreational activities, taking care of pets, and caring for a loved one or friend. A list of essential services is at FloridaDisaster.org.

Does this “shall” mean “should,” as it seems to when referring to older people’s staying home altogether? Or does it mean people “will,” or are required to, refrain from all but essential functions?

According to the governor’s office, violating the executive order is a second-degree misdemeanor enforceable by police – so this second "shall" seems like more than a suggestion.

Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office spokesman Christian Hancock told WJCT News he’s not aware of any citations issued or arrests made related to the executive order. Similarly, Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman Jessica Cary said she wasn’t aware of any arrests or citations at the state level, but she also said FDLE doesn’t have a way to track COVID-19-related cases at this point.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.

Copyright 2020 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit .