TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - With Gov. Ron DeSantis saying lockdown restrictions and mask mandates meant to stop the spread of COVID-19 did more harm than good, the state clemency board on Wednesday pardoned all Floridians who were arrested or fined for violating local-government requirements about wearing masks or social distancing.
"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.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat running to unseat the Republican governor in 2022, was the only member of the Board of Executive Clemency to oppose the move. The board also is made up of Attorney General Ashley Moody and state Chief Financial Official Officer Jimmy Patronis, both Republicans.
"Our local governments stepped up to protect the people of our state. They did what was best for the interests of their communities," Fried said.
From left: Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis
It’s not clear how many residents will be impacted by Wednesday’s decision, and DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But the board’s move followed an executive order DeSantis issued May 3 suspending all local government’s restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
DeSantis also has signed legislation that, effective July 1, will curb the ability of local governments to issue emergency orders and will allow the governor to invalidate orders that infringe on individual rights or liberties.
Mike and Jill Carnevale, who attended Wednesday's meeting in Tallahassee, own a gym in Plantation and were arrested a number of times last summer for refusing to enforce a Broward County mask mandate at their facility. The couple appeared on Fox News for their stance, garnering national attention.
While the Broward County State Attorney’s Office already dropped the second-degree misdemeanor charges against the Carnevales in May, the couple appeared at the clemency board meeting to thank the governor.
"I’m here today to say health and wellness has always been one of our foundational responsibilities to ourselves. It has never been the role of government to be legally and lawfully enforcing and dictating health and wellness," said Mike Carnevale, who was arrested three times last summer. "So today is something I am really grateful for."
DeSantis has garnered national attention for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and has become a hero to many Republicans for his push to keep schools open and to reopen the state’s economy.
DeSantis has aligned himself with a number of scientists who oppose mask mandates and lockdowns, including Scott Atlas, former President Donald Trump’s coronavirus adviser; Stanford University professor Jay Bhattacharya; and Harvard Medical School professor Martin Kulldorff, who opined that children should not be required to wear masks in schools.
DeSantis also has bucked other federal-government pandemic recommendations. For instance, when vaccines first became available, DeSantis brushed aside recommendations from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory committee that would have given priority for vaccinations to front-line workers such as law-enforcement officers and teachers. DeSantis issued an executive order that initially limited the vaccines to people ages 65 and older.
DeSantis reiterated his positions at the meeting Wednesday. The clemency board in March also agreed to wipe out fines.
"Just understand, if you’re in good shape, you’re going to handle COVID 99.99 percent of the time. And so they are telling you to close people’s gyms, have them eat take-out and watch Netflix all day. That’s not good for health," DeSantis said. "So one of the best things you can do for COVID is to be in good health."
Fried, however, blasted DeSantis for political grandstanding.
"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 prepared statement after the meeting.