As part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ continued effort to hamper local governments’ ability to impose pandemic-related infractions, the state’s clemency board on Wednesday pardoned any lingering financial penalties including those against a Broward County gym owner who at one point faced potential jail time.
“This action is necessary so we can recover, have a good transition to our normal operations, and also, just a recognition that a lot of this stuff was way, way overboard,” DeSantis said at the start of the meeting.
The measure was backed by the governor and the clemency board’s two other elected Republicans, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is running against DeSantis in 2022, was in opposition.
“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 statement. “We have laws for a reason. We may not agree with all of them, but we are obligated to follow them as a price of a civil society.”
After the motion, the governor, who has boosted his national profile with his staunch opposition to pandemic-related restrictions, introduced Jillian and Mike Carnevale, the owner of Fitness1440 in Plantation.
Mike Carnevale was arrested three times in a two-week period last August for not requiring customers to wear masks at the gym, in defiance of Broward County’s rules to combat COVID-19, a disease caused by a respiratory virus. Prosecutors filed two misdemeanor charges against Mike Carnevale and one misdemeanor charge against Jillian Carnevale and offered to dismiss their case after completing a diversion program, said Paula McMahon, a spokeswoman for the Broward State Attorney’s office.
McMahon said the office dropped the charges after DeSantis announced in May that he was ending local pandemic-related restrictions such as mask mandates.
DeSantis said the county’s rules were “unwarranted, unreasonable restrictions on their business,” and that the Carnevales were punished for exercising “common sense” and refusing to “kowtow” to the county’s regulations.
“They were actually pending criminal prosecution in a court,” DeSantis said. “Imagine, we see all these criminal activities that are actually going on that we need to be stronger on and yet we are wasting time on someone who is owning a gym.”
The pardon came a month after DeSantis announced in an appearance on Fox News’ “The Ingraham Angle” that he planned to pardon Mike Carnevale and “any Floridians who may have outstanding infractions for things like masks and social distancing.”
“It’s really amazing that Gov. Ron DeSantis has granted us clemency for this,” Mike Carnevale said Wednesday. “It’s just affirmation that, you know, we were on to something. We were on to something.”
The action on Wednesday is a continuation of the governor’s efforts to “liberate” Floridians from local mandates, which he allowed at the start of the pandemic but reversed course on starting last fall.
In March, DeSantis issued an executive order that halted the collection of fines and fees imposed on people or businesses that violated COVID-19-related ordinances. The governor then issued an executive order that immediately suspended local government pandemic-related restrictions such as mask mandates.
City and county officials have expressed frustration at the governor’s efforts.
“It is worth noting that local actions and protocols have helped to keep Floridians safe and healthy, and Ron DeSantis has benefited from that,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said in a statement back in March.
Dan Gelber, the mayor of Miami Beach, which issued hundreds of citations to people who refused to wear masks, has also called the governor’s efforts “pretty bizarre.”
“Obviously we weren’t imposing fines to make money. We were trying to create a safer environment and save lives,” Gelber said in March.
DeSantis, however, used the Carnevales’ case on Wednesday to highlight his opposition to local mandates. He said imposing COVID-19 rules on gyms did not make sense because the “best thing you could do for COVID is to be in good health.”
But DeSantis acknowledged Mike Carnevale was an “extreme case.” He appears to be the only person to have faced potential jail time in connection to a pandemic-related local violation, according to Taryn Fenske, a spokeswoman for the governor.
The governor’s office has not disclosed how many local fines and fees have been thrown out as a result of state orders. On Wednesday, DeSantis moved to wipe out all remaining fines and fees on people and businesses through the powers of Florida clemency board.
“Let’s focus on the real criminals, and let’s make sure that is where our effort is,” DeSantis said.