Florida Ends All COVID-19 Emergency Orders & Disney World’s Response

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis suspended all local COVID-19 emergency rules by executive order and signed into law restrictions on what the state’s leaders can do during future pandemics. In this post, we’ll cover the details of that move, plus Walt Disney World’s response to the new guidance (or rather, lack thereof).

The new law goes into effect July 1, 2021 and the executive order is effective immediately, acting as a stopgap until then. One goal of the law is to limit the duration, applicability, and scope of any emergency order issued by a city or county “in order to reduce any infringement on individual rights or liberties to the greatest extent possible.” Any such order would automatically expire after seven days and would have to be extended by city or county commissions every week for 42 days.

Another goal is to create checks and balances on power, so no one individual or body has unlimited authority. The law accomplishes this by giving the governor the authority to overrule cities and counties, and city and county commissions the power to overrule mayors. Finally, the Florida Legislature would have the power to overrule any emergency mandates or restrictions by the governor, thus purporting to create a system of safeguards for Floridians.

Florida’s new law would also ban businesses from requiring vaccination passports, which follows another executive order issued by DeSantis last month. The vaccine passport law forbids Florida businesses from requiring proof of vaccination for entrance. “You have a right to participate in society, go to a restaurant movie, a ballgame all these things without having to divulge this type of information,” DeSantis said.

We covered this extensively in No Vaccine Passports for Florida or Walt Disney World at the time–the details are unchanged from that. While this would prohibit Walt Disney World from requiring vaccine passports (something that was highly unlikely even without the law), it would not extend to Disney Cruise Line departures from Florida. Under new CDC rules covered in When Will Disney Cruise Line Resume Sailings? that’s something that actually might be on the horizon if DCL wants to resume operations on an accelerated timeline.

Other implications of Florida’s new law are not entirely clear. Multiple mayors around Florida reported not receiving advance notice of the executive order, and annoyance that the executive order would be issued without that courtesy. They are now left scrambling to determine what it means for their mask mandates and other health safety rules.

Effective immediately, the most significant change for members of the public is that they will not be required to wear face masks when entering city or county buildings. Beyond that, the real world consequences of the new executive order and law are likely minimal. Last fall, Florida fully reopened and lifted limits on theme parks, restaurants, etc. In so doing, Florida suspended collecting fines or fees for restrictions. That move effectively rendered local mask ordinances, like the one in Orange County, toothless and voluntary.

Just last week, Mayor Jerry Demings laid out a three phased plan that immediately reduced physical distancing and would phase out other restrictions in Orange County based upon vaccination rates or test positivity. Under that, residents are urged to avoid large groups and to stay three feet away from others. People are also required to wear masks indoors if that place is open to the public. Employees that work within three feet of others also must wear a covering.

Under the second phase of that plan, effective when 50% of the population age 16+ has received their first dose of the vaccine, facial covering mandates would be lifted outdoors for all individuals. In the third and final phase, effective when 70% of the population age 16 or older has received their first dose of the vaccine and/or Orange County’s 14-day rolling positivity rate is 5% or below, all mandates would be lifted. It’s now unclear how Orange County will proceed with that plan.

With that said, private businesses can still operate with any self-imposed restrictions under Florida’s new executive order. That means Publix, Walt Disney World, or any other business in the state can still deny entry to those not wearing masks, or following any other rules. This really isn’t anything new or novel. Those same businesses could deny entry to potential patrons not wearing shirts or shoes, despite there being no state-wide law requiring either of those articles of clothing, either.

During his press conference, DeSantis specifically stated as much, saying it wouldn’t affect mask requirements “in terms of what a supermarket [chooses] to do, or a Disney theme park.” It also doesn’t supersede federal rules, which is why visitors to Florida will still have to wear masks at Orlando International Airport, Kennedy Space Center, Everglades National Park, and other locations that fall under the purview of the Transportation Security Administration, National Park Service, or other federal agencies.

The governor used the opportunity in front of the media to encourage Floridians to get vaccinated, while also criticizing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. DeSantis blamed Florida’s vaccine hesitancy and drop in the vaccination rate on the recent pause of the Johnson & Johnson one-dose shot.

“When you’re dealing with these vaccines, you always want to see if there’s an issue, you can put out appropriate warnings, particularly if it’s for a certain demographic,” DeSantis said. “But by hastily taking it effectively off the market I think that that’s caused confidence in at least that vaccine to plummet.”

DeSantis also questioned color-coded guidance released by the CDC last week that indicated virtually every activity is safe for the fully-vaccinated, but also that the fully vaccinated should continue wearing masks for most indoor activities despite this. (Our commentary likewise express disappointment on the CDC’s slow roll on rule relaxation.)

DeSantis said that the CDC’s approach sends a message that vaccines don’t work. “Because if the vaccines worked, that would be your ticket to make basically live normally and make decisions for yourself. That would be the message that actually would work with people,” DeSantis said. “So I think that they’ve sent a message to say, you know what get vaccinated, but it really ain’t gonna do anything for you.”

Following DeSantis’ press conference, Walt Disney World released a statement:

“We are aware of the state of Florida’s plans to modify COVID-19 guidelines. We will evaluate this latest guidance and maintain our current health and safety measures at this time, including face covering requirements. We will continue to make thoughtful adjustments to our policy. As COVID-19 vaccines become available, we encourage people to get vaccinated.”

Not only did Walt Disney World publish this in an update on the official website, but also sent out a push notification in the My Disney Experience app. To our knowledge, this is a first for both–no such public statements or notifications were issued in response to previous executive orders by Florida’s governor or Orange County’s mayor.

The notification was likely sent out as a gentle “reminder” that even though Florida is changing its rules, Walt Disney World is not. Last fall after Florida’s full reopening, there was confusion among some guests about Disney’s rules, why they still had to wear masks, etc. This notice could help avoid some of that.

To us, another interesting aspect of Disney’s push notification is the final line: “As COVID-19 vaccines become available, we encourage people to get vaccinated.” While Walt Disney World is a partner in Orange County’s “I Got My Shot” public safety campaign, they’ve been silent on the topic up until now.

Our assumption has been that Disney has resisted public comment because vaccines are “controversial” among part of Disney’s core demographic. Although most people won’t take health advice from a theme park…some will. Vaccine hesitancy involves many people who are simply on the fence and waiting to hear from voices they trust, like friends, family, or even the governor and leaders of their favorite theme parks.

Walt Disney World’s push notification and public announcement are also interesting because it’s unlikely the executive order and law will have any impact whatsoever on how the parks operate.

It’s likely Walt Disney World will still follow the lead of the CDC and Orange County because it’s advantageous to do so, offers the company “cover” for the decision, and the more cautious phased plan mirrors Disney’s own approach to safety and its public image.

In fact, it’s more likely than not that Disney was consulted in the drafting of Orange County’s three phase plan given their power in Central Florida; at the very least, the company knew it was coming. Accordingly, when that plan was released, our expectation was that Walt Disney World would relax physical distancing at some point this month. Florida’s new executive order and subsequent law are unlikely to change any of that.

With all of that said, this does theoretically pave a way for Walt Disney World to further relax rules on the company’s own timeline. In large part, we’d still expect this to be dictated by consumer expectations, with a cautious approach that takes into consideration evolving public sentiment. Being fully vaccinated is effectively the end of this for most people, and they’ll want to behave accordingly. No matter how people might feel about masks today, the vast majority won’t want to continue having to wear them several months after they’ve been vaccinated, especially on vacation. We’ve been predicting precisely this for months–see When Will Walt Disney World Stop Requiring Face Masks? among many other posts for our expectations about when Walt Disney World will further relax its health safety protocol.