TALLAHASSEE — Lobbying groups for small businesses, restaurants, hotels and retailers expressed a need to senators Monday for statewide rules for the next health crisis, with a focus on mask mandates.
Officials with the National Federation of Independent Business-Florida, the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association and the Florida Retail Federation told members of the Senate Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Response that a wide range of city and county regulations has been among the biggest issues they have faced since the pandemic began slightly more than a year ago.
Florida Retail Federation President & CEO Scott Shalley said his group was monitoring 164 different county and city mask ordinances, of which a number, specifically one imposed in St. Petersburg, were “fairly draconian.”
“When it’s done by executive order in virtually an overnight fashion you really are putting businesses in a tough spot,” Shalley said. “But more importantly, you’re putting the consumer, the shopper in a tough spot, because they’re simply not aware. And they sometimes look to be unhappy with the messenger, if you will, because it’s the retailer that has to convey the message on the enforcement side.”
Bill Herrle, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business in Florida, said mask mandates — even as Gov. Ron DeSantis has limited enforcement by lifting fines against violators — continue to impact about 15 percent of businesses.
“There’s a lot of bright spots in the Florida economy, but if you’re in a couple selected industries, then probably not so much,” Herrle said. “And we all know who those industries are. You can define them singularly, if you just say if it’s a business that depends on foot traffic, if it depends on that person wearing a face mask, getting out and walking into your business.”
Lawmakers are moving forward during this year’s legislative session with measures such as proposals (SB 1924 and HB 945) that would limit the length of locally issued emergency orders and provide COVID-19 liability protections for businesses (SB 72).
Herrle also noted that small business owners are optimistic about the future, with a prime concern the same as when the pandemic began, workforce availability.
Members of the committee, meeting for the last time this session, pointed to a need for studies that can show if closing businesses helped curtail the spread of the virus and if people have stayed out of work to collect unemployment benefits.
“I would think that as big an impact as this has made on our citizens and businesses and their draconian effects to close a business completely, that a year later we should have some data. I mean, there should be some academia, research being done to show, if we’re going to cause this kind of chaos in our economics and lives, that we should have some data moving forward,” said Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville.
Rich Templin, a lobbyist for the Florida AFL-CIO, said a lot of time has been spent during the session on a narrative that “business is the victim of the pandemic,” and more time needs to be given to working families.
“During the pandemic, over 85 percent of unemployed workers never got a dime, they didn’t get a single benefit from the state,” Templin said. “They may have gotten federal dollars. But I assure you and your panelists that was not enough to convince them to stay home and not have a job. Housing is still in huge demand. And our unemployment system is still in shambles.”
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, requested that the Department of Business and Professional Regulations provide a list of suggested permanent changes to law based on executive orders from the past year, such as an “alcohol to go” measure (SB 148 and HB 329) that would allow restaurants and certain bars to sell or deliver alcoholic beverages in sealed containers to go when accompanied by food.
“Cocktails ‘to go’ is obviously one of the more politically interesting ones, but there’s probably 20 or 30 different things that we aren’t thinking about because they don’t involve alcohol that would be very, very beneficial to the state,” Brandes said.
Also, Brandes, pointing to the possibility former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum could have been Florida’s governor over the past year and that other states with Democratic governors have imposed long lockdowns, sought support for legislation that would limit future powers of the governor by requiring a couple of Cabinet members to sign off on directives.
“It’s terrifying to think about what could happen if we were in New York and California right now, or Illinois, or any of the other states that decided to shut everything down,” Brandes said. “And the simple thought that the wrong governor of this state could shut off all of our businesses, and we can see unemployment in the teens or twenties, and the life savings of millions of Floridians down the drain, because of one person’s action, terrifies me.”