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DeSantis Wants Court To Dismiss Lawsuit Aimed At Forcing Beach Closures

Clearwater Beach is closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Pointing to his “discretionary” powers in dealing with emergencies, Gov. Ron DeSantis is asking a circuit judge to toss out a lawsuit aimed at forcing statewide beach closures because of the novel coronavirus.

Attorneys for DeSantis filed a motion Wednesday to dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed by Santa Rosa Beach lawyer Daniel Uhlfelder amid debate about whether groups of beachgoers -- including spring break crowds of college students -- have worsened the spread of COVID-19, the deadly respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

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Local governments have closed most beaches, though DeSantis has resisted a blanket closure order. The motion to dismiss the lawsuit raised a series of arguments, including that the governor has legal discretion in deciding how to use his emergency authority. Also, it said a court decision forcing DeSantis to close beaches would violate the constitutional separation of powers and that Uhlfelder lacks legal standing to pursue the case.

“To be sure, plaintiff may believe a variety of alternative actions are superior to those of the governor,” the motion said. “But just because plaintiff believes he knows best does not confer a justiciable controversy.”

Uhlfelder initially filed the lawsuit March 20 in Leon County circuit court and filed an amended version Sunday. The amended complaint seeks an injunction ordering statewide closure of beaches.

“DeSantis is obligated by the Florida statutes, the Florida Constitution and his oath of office to take the basic step of issuing a statewide beach closure order to assist in preventing the spread of COVID-19,” the amended complaint said. “Mr. DeSantis’ failure to issue a statewide beach closure order is an abject failure of his obligation to faithfully execute the Florida statutes, observe the Florida Constitution and thereby uphold his oath of office.”

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The amended lawsuit also sought to require DeSantis to issue an order directing people to stay at home --- a so-called “safer at home” order. DeSantis issued such an executive order Wednesday.

The order does not explicitly address beaches, but it says people “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.”

A list of those essential activities includes recreational activities such as walking, biking, fishing and running, so long as people comply with social-distancing guidelines. The guidelines include limiting gatherings to 10 or fewer people and keeping a six-foot distance from other people.

Leon County Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll held a case-management conference Wednesday in Uhlfelder’s lawsuit, which said that eight counties had not closed beaches. The filing Wednesday by DeSantis’ attorneys said 30 of 34 coastal counties had closed beaches or restricted access.

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“The potential harm, if any caused by closing Florida’s beaches is vastly outweighed by the high risk of the continued, rapid spread of COVID-19,” Uhlfelder’s lawsuit said. “The public policy goal of blunting the spread of one of the most far-reaching and deadly viral outbreaks in human history is served by closing Florida’s beaches.”

But DeSantis’ attorneys wrote that Uhlfelder’s argument that the governor is obligated by law to close beaches statewide is a “baseless assertion.”

“Lest there be any doubt: Plaintiff has not pointed to a single constitutional or statutory provision that would require Governor DeSantis to issue a statewide mandatory beach-closure order or a statewide recommended safer-at-home order,” the motion to dismiss the case said. “And Governor DeSantis is unaware of any legal authority that would require him to do so.”

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.
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