During these uncertain times, people are being charged with civil and criminal offenses that would have been unthinkable had it not been for the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. With no end to the virus in sight, many who are fed up with the current state of affairs have begun to engage in unlawful activity such as violating social distancing guidelines, operating a business that the government ordered to be closed, and failing to wear a mask in public places or in businesses. In many cases, people are violating the law without even knowing it. Here’s a timeline of the unprecedented actions that the State of Florida and Palm Beach County have taken to protect the public and to curb the spread of Covid-19, and more on the consequences for violating the County’s Emergency Orders.
Florida Issues Emergency Order To Protect Health, Slow The Spread
On March 9, 2020, to protect Floridians and to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Governor Ron DeSantis issued an Executive Order declaring a State of Emergency for all of Florida. This resulted in the first of many government actions that had the effect of restricting some businesses and closing public areas.
Emergency Order Restricts Recreational Activities
Four days into the State of Emergency, Palm Beach County started issuing its own Emergency Orders. The first one was for stopping recreational activities and warning of the use of facial coverings. By March 22, boat docks, ramps, marinas and other venues used for launching recreational vessels were closed. This Order affected fishing charters, boats and diving excursions.
Non-Essential Businesses Forced To Close
On March 24th, Governor DeSantis rolled out the Stay Home-Stay Safe: Safe at Home Policy, which basically called upon Floridians to stay at home to minimize the spread of Covid-19 and to protect the medical community. By March 25th, Palm Beach County shut down non-critical retail and commercial businesses, which was both unprecedented and costly. This prevented any business from running unless it was necessary to provide goods and services to the public. Parks and golf courses were also shut down.
Floridians Instructed To Stay At Home
Effective March 29th, Palm Beach County issued an Order echoing the Governor’s call for folks to stay home and requiring Floridians to follow social distance guidelines set forth by both CDC and Florida Department of Health. Notably, by April 11th, Palm Beach County directed people to wear masks in places likes grocery stores, restaurants, pharmacies, ridesharing services, and places where social distancing was not possible.
Some Businesses Allowed To Reopen, Others Forced To Remain Closed
Towards the end of April, Florida began to reopen in at least some capacity. On April 29th, Governor DeSantis introduced the Safe Smart Step-by-Step Plan for Florida’s Recovery which effectively re-opened the State. In Palm Beach County, parks, golf courses, marinas and boat ramps reopened.
On May 11th, Palm Beach County began operating under Phase 1 of the Plan. This allowed restaurants to operate at half capacity with additional partitioning between parties. Outdoor seating and take-out service was permitted again. However, bars and nightclubs remained closed.
Activities Resume With Social Distancing Conditions
Beaches opened on May 16th with notable restrictions on gatherings of any more than 10 people. By this point, Floridians were required to distance themselves from other people by at least six feet (social distancing). By May 22, 2020, Palm Beach County finally began allowing noncritical retail and commercial businesses to resume.
Palm Beach County Orders Mask Mandate
Perhaps most controversial was a June 24th Palm Beach County Emergency Order mandating facemask wearing. Specifically, the Order stated that facial coverings have to be worn in all businesses including restaurants, retail establishments, hotels, grocery stores, gyms, pharmacies, indoor recreational facilities, and vehicles for hire (e.g. Uber, Lyft). The mask mandate also applies to public places and public transit services.
Not all people are required to wear face masks such as those under two years old; those who are dining in at restaurants; those with health conditions; and those whose religious beliefs or practices preclude them from wearing it.
Reopening Scaled Back Because Of Spike In Cases
In July 2020, Palm Beach County imposed temporary beach closures and restrictions on operating hours of bars, nightclubs, movie theaters, bowling alleys, and restaurants because of a sharp increase in positive cases. Also, Palm Beach County pulled back its request to enter into Phase 2 of the Plan.
Palm Beach County Formalizes Civil Penalties For Violating Orders
Notably, by August 7, 2020, Palm Beach County issued a Resolution authorizing officers to issue civil citations for violating the Palm Beach County Emergency Orders. For individuals, the fines are $25 for first time offenders; $50 for second time offenders; and $100 for additional violations. For businesses, the fine is $250 for first time offenders, $350 for second time offenders, and $500 for additional offenses.
While you don’t pay a big price for violating the Emergency Orders once or twice, recurring violations could become very costly, such as reopening in defiance of Palm Beach County’s directives or by deliberately not wearing a mask. Moreover, the Resolution points out that in addition to the civil citations, a code enforcement board or Palm Beach County Special Master may impose fines of up to $1,000 per day for a first violation, $5,000 per day for a repeat violation, and $15,000 per day if the code enforcement board or Palm Beach County Special Master finds the violation irreversible or irreparable.
Violating Emergency Orders Could Be A Criminal Offense
Finally, there are criminal penalties for failing to comply with Palm Beach County’s Emergency Orders. Critically, the Palm Beach County Sheriff or other law enforcement officers have been instructed to enforce Florida law, and violations of State Emergency Management Act constitutes a second degree misdemeanor which carries a maximum $500 fine and 60-day jail sentence.
The Present State Of Affairs
Notably, Palm Beach County was in Phase 1 from May 11, 2020 to September 3, 2020. By September 4, 2020, it transitioned to Phase 2 – Step 1 of Safe Smart Step-by-Step Plan for Florida’s Recovery. Governor DeSantis issued an Executive Order on September 25th that placed Florida into Phase 3. This effectively reopened all businesses, removed restrictions on indoor capacity at restaurants, and suspended the collection of fines and penalties enforced on individuals. Palm Beach County issued a parallel Order on September 29th; however, face coverings are still required in all businesses and establishments in the County. While a vaccine is rumored to be available later this year, it is uncertain when it will be widely distributed, and in turn, when these Emergency Orders will be lifted. So, heed the Palm Beach County’s Orders and remember to contact a criminal defense attorney if you are charged with a civil or criminal offense.