WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Despite a strict face covering mandate in effect, more than 100 mostly maskless people packed a Palm Beach County hotel on Friday to hear Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis give an update on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking at the Hilton Palm Beach Airport Hotel in West Palm Beach, DeSantis praised his administration's efforts to vaccinate more than 1.9 million people in Florida who are 65 and older.
"Hopefully, if we can get some more vaccine over the next few weeks, we can have all the seniors done, hopefully, sometime in early, mid-March," DeSantis said.
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Cheers erupted among the dozens of maskless DeSantis supporters who blatantly disregarded Palm Beach County's facial covering mandate, which has been extended until March 19.
Under the ordinance, facial coverings must be worn by people "obtaining any good or service or otherwise visiting or working in any business or establishment, including entering, exiting, and otherwise moving around within the establishment."
Those businesses include hotels, at which Friday's event took place.
John Jamason, a spokesman for Palm Beach County, sent this written statement to WPTV about the event:
"This event was not coordinated by the county. It is up to the Hilton to enforce mask mandates in their facilities. Complaints about businesses continue to come in to our compliance hotline and the county responds with education and enforcement when needed."
Jamason added that Deputy County Administrator Jon Van Arnam sent the following email to county commissioners about the DeSantis event:
"Approximately 15 minutes before the Governor’s 10:00 am press event this morning at the Airport Hilton, we were informed that a large audience (approximately 100-150) was in attendance and numerous individuals were not wearing facial coverings or masks. We immediately dispatched a CECT representative to the event. We have spoken to Hilton management and will be following up with them and event organizers in accordance with our normal compliance procedures."
According to Jamason, it will be up to Palm Beach County's Code Enforcement and Compliance Team to determine if the hotel will face any fines or penalties.
Santhosh Pillai, the executive senior vice president for the Cicero Hospitality Group, sent this statement to WPTV on behalf of the Hilton Palm Beach Airport Hotel management team:
"We are aware of the event held by the Governor at our hotel today and concerns that have been raised regarding the lack of masks at the event. While we welcome the Governor and all of our guests to our hotel, we are in strong support of all federal, state and local guidelines associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, and we do our best to ensure the health and safety of our guests through compliance with those guidelines. Since the event ended, we have been made aware of video that appears to show a group of individuals within close proximity of one another and not wearing masks. We are disappointed in their apparent failure to comply with our mask regulations which are prominently displayed throughout the hotel. Moving forward, we will continue to do our best to monitor and enforce these guidelines as long as they remain in place."
A spokesperson for DeSantis' office did not place blame on either the hotel or individuals who violated the mask mandate, only saying in a short statement that "Governor DeSantis’ executive order suspending the collection of fines and penalties associated with COVID-19 enforced upon individuals remains in place."
Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay called the incident a "blatant disregard for the safety of residents."
"Leadership from the top down should be respecting those CDC guidelines and leading by example, which is what we're trying to do," McKinlay said.
While McKinlay agreed that DeSantis' executive order prohibits Palm Beach County from fining individuals who violate the mask mandate, it doesn't prevent the county from enforcing the ordinance on businesses where violations take place.
"The Hilton will be treated as any other business in Palm Beach County has been treated," McKinlay said. "The staff will look at it. They will issue a warning to the business owners. And if they continue to violate the mask order, then they'll be fined."
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According to the county's Code Enforcement and Compliance Team, which investigates alleged violations of Palm Beach County's COVID-19 mandates, 8,204 complaints have been processed since last year, resulting in 190 written warnings, 78 notices of violation, and 26 business closures.
The Hilton Palm Beach Airport Hotel had not received any prior complaints before Friday, according to the latest numbers from the Code Enforcement and Compliance Team.
"The message that the governor and the attendees sent is that they don't care about business owners and the risks that they're putting those owners, the place that they're putting them in," McKinlay said. "It's unfortunate, very unfortunate."
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In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, DeSantis focused on election integrity during his West Palm Beach visit on Friday, praising Florida's efficiency in executing the 2020 election.
"Florida has the most transparent and efficient election anywhere in the country," DeSantis said. "It can be done, and don't let anybody tell you it can't be done."
To further improve election security, DeSantis said he's asking the Florida Legislature to approve the following:
- No ballot harvesting, in which a political volunteer collects absentee ballots from voters and drops them off at a polling location
- No mass mailings of unsolicited ballots
- No unattended drop boxes; drop boxes must be monitored at all times by elections officials
- No money from private special interest groups to fund elections operations
"We did it right in 2020. We obviously gotta continue to look and make sure we're doing it better," DeSantis said.