Critics complain David Kerner was too aggressive with COVID-19 response when Palm Beach County mayor

Two weeks ago, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis gave his second inaugural address in front of banners emblazoned with “Free State of Florida.”

“Over the past few years, as so many states in our country grinded [sic] their citizens down, we in Florida lifted our people up,” DeSantis, a Republican, told the cheering ground.

A few days later, though, he appointed former Palm Beach Mayor David Kerner, a Democrat, as interim director of the Florida Department of Highways and Motor Safety. His appointment was made official Jan. 17 with his unanimous confirmation by the Florida Cabinet, including DeSantis, newly elected Commissioner of Agriculture Wilton Simpson, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Attorney General Ashley Moody.

But the appointment has raised questions from some about whether Kerner was a good choice to run the state agency that includes the Florida Highway Patrol. As a mayor, Kerner’s response to COVID-19 differed vastly from DeSantis’s approach.

Signs encouraging people to report businesses and people violating rules related to COVID-19 were posted around Palm Beach County, Florida while David Kerner was mayor. (Courtesy of Chris Nelson)

On June 19, 2020, then-Mayor Kerner announced the creation of a  Covid Education and Compliance Team (CECT) in Palm Beach County. Relying on a hotline for citizens to report businesses, Kerner organized and dispatched a squad of police and code enforcement officers to close businesses not enforcing mask mandates or those that were open though deemed “non-essential.”

“There will be an enforcement aspect, a compliance aspect, to this,” said Kerner when he announced the effort.

“We will utilize the full force of the law, from beyond education and compliance, but also notices to appear, regulatory restrictions, pulling relevant licenses, and, in the most rare circumstances, criminal prosecution.”

Justin Thomas worked at one of the businesses Kerner’s team visited.

“I really thought we had entered some parallel universe where communism prevailed in the cold war,” said Thomas, a bartender at Smoke Inn Cigar Bar.

“I was 37 at the time and doing well to support three kids, a house, and two cars. Right when I’m getting back financially from six weeks off due to COVID, an officer of some task force walks right in during peak hours, and upon a quick inspection, determined that we had no right to serve anyone.”

Mask-Mandate Enforcement

Kerner’s Covid Education and Compliance Team demanded that small businesses post signs on their door with the number for a hotline taking calls about companies violating mask mandates and other COVID-related orders.

“I was actually fired yesterday at my job,” Palm Beach resident Beth Bohon complained during the public comment period of a meeting of the Palm Beach County Commission on Sept. 1, 2020.

“I was at work, and the gentleman came in. He did not introduce himself. He demanded that I put a mask on. He wanted to know if I had paperwork and if he could see that paperwork. I showed up to work on Monday and was told I had to wear a mask because they had been pressured by Palm Beach County.”

Other area residents lined up to share stories about the local enforcement tactics they described as heavy-handed.

In May 2021, DeSantis issued an executive order that ended Kerner’s Covid Education and Compliance Team. And he signed SB 2006, which went into effect on June 1, 2021, and stripped local governments of their authority to enforce local COVID regulations, such as mask mandates.

“Over the last year, we’ve avoided protracted lockdowns and school closures in Florida, because I have refused to take the same approach as other lockdown governors,” DeSantis said in a written statement.

“This legislation ensures that legal safeguards are in place so that local governments cannot arbitrarily close our schools and businesses.”

Support For DeSantis

Though a Democrat, Kerner publicly endorsed DeSantis’s reelection campaign.

He praised DeSantis’s leadership and lamented on Twitter about friends he’d lost by making this endorsement.

“I lost a lot, if not most, of my Dem ‘friends and colleagues’ when I endorsed Gov. @RonDeSantisFL. They and the party failed to see the true value of a great governor, regardless of party. Fortunately, the people of Florida did not,” Kerner wrote on Twitter.

Kerner now will be in charge of the Florida Highway Patrol and three other divisions: Motorist Services, Administrative Services, and Information Systems Administration.

“I would note that Kerner has a former [Law Enforcement] background and is appointed for a law enforcement position under the authority of the governor and cabinet—where politics does not come into play,” said Bryan Griffin, press secretary for DeSantis.

“During the time Kerner endorsed the Governor for reelection, he admitted the governor’s handling of COVID was the right one.”

A petition with almost 1,000 signatures from Floridians calls for DeSantis to rescind his nomination of Kerner.

The Epoch Times requested comment from Kerner’s office but did not receive a response before publication.

Chris Nelson

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