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Pinellas Officials Close Non-Essential Businesses Amid Stay-At-Home Confusion

Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton
Pinellas County

After a  long meeting that highlighted confusion about the statewide stay-at-home order Gov. Ron DeSantis issued Wednesday, Pinellas County Commissioners voted Thursday to close non-essential businesses in order to comply.

But as they put that plan into effect, officials say they'll seek guidance from the state about the scope of DeSantis' order.

Under the county stay-at-home order implemented last week, businesses like barbershops, nail salons, jewelry stores and others could remain open if they practiced social distancing. But the state order bars people from visiting non-essential locations.

The language of that order was ambiguous, county commissioners said, as it didn’t actually shut down any business or public place but instead said where people were and were not allowed to travel.

For example, the order deems barbershops nonessential. It doesn’t say barbershops must close, but does say that anyone traveling to a barbershop would be violating the order.

“I always want to give the person the reasonable doubt and a chance to clarify what they said, but it just feels like they [the state] wanted to say, ‘Well I never shut any businesses down,’" said commissioner Charlie Justice.

"And it’s semantics and it’s language and we’re in too serious a time for people to be playing games with language and that’s what’s so frustrating from when we saw this yesterday to this morning.”

RELATED: WUSF's complete coronavirus coverage

Even defining what is and isn’t essential proved to be challenging. The statewide order draws from policies previously issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Miami-Dade County. The former uses broad categories to define essential businesses, while the latter offers more specifics.

So Pinellas officials struggled to find answers for concerned constituents about why some businesses can continue to remain open and others can't.

County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri urged the commission to create clarity at the local level so that his officers can do a better job enforcing the order.

He said counties can be more restrictive than the state but not less, according to Section 4 of the order.

But even that came into question after the meeting when it was disclosed that DeSantis quietly signed a second order hours after the first one Wednesday. The new order said the original one "shall supersede any conflicting official action or order issued by local officials in response to COVID-19."

That seemingly took power from local authorities to set stronger rules than the state.

DeSantis attempted to clarify the boundaries at a press conference.

"We have the baseline, if some folks want to do things more than they can do more in certain situations," he said.

The question is what are those situations.

At Thursday's Pinellas meeting, before knowing about the second state order, Gualtieri used churches and synagogues as an example. DeSantis stay-at-home order deems religious gatherings essential but didn’t specify any social distancing guidelines for them.

Earlier this week a Tampa church caused national uproar for gathering hundreds of people for a Sunday service. It defied Hillsborough County’s stay-at-home order and the pastor was arrested and charged.

“So what we're going to ask you to do is ask anything that is essential and allowed to remain open, that you require that it be groups of no more than 10 and there be social distancing,” he said.

The commission voted to do that, saying essential locations that fail to comply will get another chance to do so but repeat offenders will be shutdown.

A short time after the meeting, Pinellas officials told WUSF they will reconsider Thursday’s votes upon learning about the additional executive order.

The county also plans to post lists defining what is and isn't essential online so the public has a better understanding.

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I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.