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Florida Judge Won’t Force State Beach Closures to Halt Virus

April 7, 2020, 10:56 PM

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis cannot be forced to close beaches statewide to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, a state judge said Tuesday.

Leon County Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll said he did not have the authority to substitute his judgment for the governor’s decisions in a developing public health crisis.

“I don’t know how I can be doing anything but second-guessing what he’s done on beach closures and stay-at-home orders,” Carroll said in a hearing held via teleconference. The judge—who sits in the state’s capital, Tallahassee—ordered the case dismissed.

More than 14,500 Covid-19 cases have been confirmed by the state’s Department of Health, and 296 people had died as of 5:40 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday.

As of March 20, DeSantis had ordered beach closures only in Broward and Palm Beach counties, as the number of cases confirmed in South Florida was rapidly growing. Elsewhere in Florida, DeSantis ordered limiting groups gathering on beaches to 10 people or fewer.

Those steps were not enough for Walton County lawyer Daniel Uhlfelder, who sued the first-term Republican that day, seeking an emergency court order closing all of state’s beaches.

DeSantis’ other actions since declaring a public health emergency, including isolation for travelers from four states as they enter Florida, reflected the concerns outlined in the complaint, Uhlfelder said in Tuesday’s hearing.

DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order on April 1, but left it up to most other counties and cities to decide whether their beaches could remain open.

Most of Florida’s coastal counties have closed their beaches, along with other public spaces, to reduce public exposure to the virus. A group of Walton County property owners, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, filed a federal lawsuit on Monday over local beach closures that they claim violate their privacy and private property rights.

A lawyer for DeSantis argued Uhlfelder lacked standing to sue and sought relief that would violate the separation of powers.

“There’s no statutory requirement for the governor to close the beaches or issue a stay-at-home order,” attorney Nicholas Primrose said. “There’s no injury to the plaintiff because he’s not compelled to leave his home or go to the beach absent the relief request.”

Carroll said he was granting DeSantis’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit “with prejudice” so Uhlfelder could immediately appeal to Florida’s First District Court of Appeal.

“We’re not going to give up,” Uhlfelder replied.

The case is Uhlfelder v. DeSantis, Fla. Cir. Ct., 20-CA-552, 4/7/20

To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer Kay in Miami at jkay@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com; Tina May at tmay@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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