Okeechobee sheriff and police chief clarify governor’s order

OKEECHOBEE — On Monday, May 4, Governor Ron DeSantis’s new executive order goes into effect. Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen and Okeechobee City Police Chief Bob Peterson met with Mayor Dowling Watford and Commissioner Terry Burroughs on Friday, to discuss the handling of the new order. Sheriff Stephen said even though the order is in black and white, it still leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and they felt it would be beneficial to add some clarity and guidance, so the citizens of Okeechobee will know what to expect.

The Department of Business and Professional Regulations has the authority to regulate the operation of local business and enforce the order, but they are not coming to Okeechobee, said the sheriff, so that leaves it up to local jurisdictions to enforce it.

Unfortunately, some are pushing the envelope already they said, and they are getting a lot of calls complaining about the order being violated by local businesses. For example, in the last couple days, they have had calls about four different barber/beauty shops opening and performing services. When they get those complaints, they have no choice but to follow up. They have to enforce the governor’s orders despite personal feelings.

Usually when they go to the business, it turns out to be a misunderstanding, they said, and they just explain to them what the order says and how that pertains to their business. If they have to go back again, the person could be subject to a notice to appear, because it is a second degree misdemeanor to violate the order. If necessary, they could be taken to jail. The way it is handled is a decision made by the officer and based on how many times they have been there and how cooperative the person is. Law enforcement is also obligated to document the interaction and report it to the Department of Business and Professional Regulations. They issue licenses to these businesses and violations can jeopardize these licenses.

Right now, bars, gyms, beauty salons and barbershops are all still closed except to sell supplies which can be done curbside or by delivery.

Restaurants may open for seating on Monday. They can have tables outside spaced 6 feet apart, and inside they can have 25% of their normal capacity but must still practice social distancing.

Restaurants which are borderline bars will be closely monitored to be sure they are not going overboard with serving alcohol. The majority of their sales must be for food, not alcohol. When the dining room closes for the night, they are expected to close, because at that point, they become a bar and not a restaurant.

Churches are welcome to open for normal chapel services as long as social distancing is practiced. If one family group is sitting on a pew, the next group should be a minimum of six feet away. Multiple services to keep the attendance lower are encouraged.

“I feel this will be a good way to ease us back into society,” said the sheriff. “People need this to help get through these times.”

Social clubs are to remain closed. Most of them are considered bars.

“We, as Americans have to maintain social distancing. Not just because the governor said so but for public safety,” he said. This is the reason they are being proactive about enforcement rather than reactive.

This is only phase one, he said. “Hopefully phase two will come soon and then phase three. Hopefully by the end of the month, we will be back to some type of normalcy. Still practicing social distancing for the rest of our lives and generations to come. Right now, we are just asking for cooperation to get us through this.”

Deputies and police officers will monitor the businesses as they patrol their usual areas. If they see 20 vehicles outside a small business, they will investigate. Some businesses have been on social media advertising their plan to commit violations, he said. They are being reported and then someone has to follow up.

“We don’t want to cause anybody any trouble,” he said. “We understand they are trying to operate, function and pay bills. Some of these people considered nonessential are the only breadwinners in the family. Unemployment has not come through. The state has dropped the ball on a lot of these things, and we sympathize, but ultimately at the end of the day, we have a governor’s rule we have to enforce. We can’t be selective and let this one do it but not that one. We have to be fair and consistent.”

Chief Peterson said the 6 foot distancing applies to everyone, everywhere, all the time. The only exceptions are people who live in the same home.

“Even though at times it might seem as though it’s not the case, we are all members of the same community and are all truly on the same side,” he said. “We are not the enemy. We just have a job to do and are doing it the best we can.”

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