As local counties adjusted their emergency orders on Monday to eliminate potential fines after such penalties were banned by Gov. Ron DeSantis across Florida, officials in Orange County cautioned residents that they are tracking superspreader events where they believe large numbers of people became infected.
Investigators are looking into two events attended by at least one person with the virus who infected others, said Dr. Raul Pino, Orange’s officer from the Florida Department of Health.
“We think there have been some super spreader events around the county: church choirs, house parties, tailgating,” Pino said. “These events [are] where people tend to be very loud, active, socially engaged [and] you drop in one person with COVID-19 and you get 20 [cases]. It can get out of control and be difficult to track.”
Pino said his staff is still working to confirm the number of cases associated with each of the events where at least 50 people congregated, including people experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, but who did not know they were positive for the virus. So far none of the people who became sick have been hospitalized, he said.
One of the gatherings was a party attended by 13 families and preliminary tests show multiple people from each of the families acquired the virus, he said.
He said complacency among a public weary of the limitations the pandemic has put on everyday life was likely a contributing factor.
“We have to admit that we are all tired of wearing masks, of being isolated, of being at home and changing our lives in a way that we are not accustomed to,” he said. “It gets to a point that sometimes you might say, ‘What the heck!’ But people can get sick.”
Superspreader events are different from previous outbreaks in the county because the new cases hit at about the same time versus previous outbreaks that traveled more slowly such as one earlier this year among workers at Orlando International Airport and another at a local factory.
Statewide, Florida reported test results on Monday of just half or less of the typical testing volume in recent days. About 4% of tests in Orange County were positive, where weekly positivity rates have ticked up slightly each of the past two weeks, and were 4.55% last week. Osceola’s positivity rate jumped to 10.56% Monday. In Seminole, 4% of tests were positive and in Lake, 3.5% of tests were positive.
Officials in Seminole and Osceola counties said DeSantis' announcement last week that the state would move to Phase 3 of its reopening meant they could no longer fine people for disobeying local orders to wear masks or other rules. Though neither county had actually levied any fines, officials said.
In Osceola County, violators of the face-covering order could have received fines ranging from $25 to $50.
Seminole County officials urged residents on Monday to continue wearing masks and stay home if they test positive for coronavirus.
Seminole has had two executive orders; one enacted in April that required any individual who tested positive for COVID-19 must remain in their homes until medically cleared or face a fine of $500.
The other executive order, which took effect July 1, required patrons to wear masks and practice social distancing with businesses and other public areas. Frequent violators could have been charged with a misdemeanor.
“We’re asking residents to please” continue wearing masks, practice social distancing and stay home if they feel sick or test positive, said Alan Harris, Seminole’s emergency management director.
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings echoed that plea. He said businesses should continue regularly cleaning their stores and insist employees wear masks. He said his executive order that requires face coverings remains in place, though it never directly threatened fines or penalties.
“In my opinion, the governor got out of the business of trying to impose sanctions or enforcement for whatever reason … that kind of punted responsibility to those of us at the local levels,” Demings said.
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DeSantis lifted capacity restrictions on bars and restaurants, though cities and counties can limit capacity if they provide certain justifications.
Demings also warned businesses could face legal liability if a customer catches the virus as a result of negligence and files a lawsuit — at least for now.
Some Florida and national Republicans have called for shielding businesses from lawsuits pertaining to COVID-19. Sen. Mitch McConnell pushed for its inclusion in the CARES Act.
“There’s a potential for liability exposure there,” Demings said. “At this point, there is nothing at the federal level or the state level that has removed the potential for a liability exposure.”