Promise kept: DeSantis issues pardons for all COVID-19 business violations

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Almost exactly a month ago, Florida governor Ron DeSantis promised clemency  for all business violations of COVID-19 restrictions while live on the air with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham. On air with gym owners Mike and Jillian Carnevale, who had been fined for having outdoor equipment too close together, DeSantis called it a “total overreach.”

Yesterday, DeSantis made good on his pledge — and even scored a political win against his presumed re-election rival in the process:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state’s Clemency Board granted pardons Wednesday for Floridians with lingering fines issued for violating mask mandates implemented by local governments.

“This action is necessary so that we can recover, have a good transition to normal operations, and also just a recognition that a lot of this stuff was way, way overboard,” DeSantis said.

Democratic candidate for governor Nikki Fried was the only member on the board to oppose the pardons, according to local news outlet Fox 13.

“I voted today to uphold our laws, while our so-called pro-law enforcement governor is actively encouraging people to break the law with politically motivated stunts like this,” Fried said in a statement following a Wednesday clemency board meeting.

Fried has some support for that position from mayors and other leaders in local government. When DeSantis ordered a halt in March to collections of fines related to COVID-19 violations, some publicly objected that DeSantis was undercutting measures that had made him and the state look good in the first place:

City and county officials have expressed frustration at the governor’s efforts.

“It is worth noting that local actions and protocols have helped to keep Floridians safe and healthy, and Ron DeSantis has benefited from that,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said in a statement back in March.

Dan Gelber, the mayor of Miami Beach, which issued hundreds of citations to people who refused to wear masks, has also called the governor’s efforts “pretty bizarre.”

“Obviously we weren’t imposing fines to make money. We were trying to create a safer environment and save lives,” Gelber said in March.

They may have been legitimately and sincerely trying to save lives with these restrictions — in fact, that’s a certainty. But the question was whether those prohibitions and requirements had that effect in the first place, and when it became obvious that they didn’t. Masking indoors undoubtedly helped to some degree, but not outside where transmission risk is negligible if not nil. By the time the Carnevales got threatened with jail time, scientists and public policymakers had more than enough data to understand that … and yet continued to enforce policies that didn’t have a lot more effect than fundraising. Small wonder that Floridians look askance at the impact of these enforcement actions, even if they grant an initial angelic intent behind them.

Much of these “local actions and protocols” were every bit as much political theater as DeSantis’ pardon is now. Complaining about DeSantis’ move now sounds like sour grapes from people who are now realizing that they’re on the losing end of the same game.

That applies to Fried too, and perhaps especially so at this stage. Florida’s months-long experiment in remaining open has been vindicated, as has DeSantis’ pandemic leadership despite media narratives about his recklessness. Now that Florida is reopening, what’s the point of enforcing regulations that appear to be next to meaningless now? Does Fried really think that Floridians will cheer mask enforcement and social-distancing prosecution at this late stage? If Fried runs on the “punish all mask evaders” platform in 2022, Florida Democrats had better start strategizing for 2026 now.