WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Despite a strict face-covering mandate in effect, more than 100 mostly maskless people packed a Palm Beach County hotel on Friday to cheer Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' update on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, his push to impose more restrictions on voting by mail and his plans to honor recently deceased conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh.
The event, which took place indoors, has already prompted an investigation by Palm Beach County for possible violation of the county's mask mandate.
Speaking at the Hilton Palm Beach Airport Hotel in West Palm Beach, DeSantis praised his administration's efforts to vaccinate more than 1.9 million people in Florida who are 65 and older.
"Hopefully, if we can get some more vaccine over the next few weeks, we can have all the seniors done, hopefully, sometime in early, mid-March," DeSantis said.
DeSantis also pushed policies to restrict mail-in voting in future elections. Florida saw an increase in mail-in voting during the 2020 election due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there were no reports of widespread issues or fraud. However, DeSantis said further regulations would better improve security.
"We did it right in 2020. We obviously gotta continue to look and make sure we're doing it better," DeSantis said.
DeSantis told the crowd that he intends to ask the Florida legislature to outlaw the "mass mailing of unsolicited ballots," even though the state already requires those voting by mail to request a ballot. He's also asking for ballot drop boxes to be monitored at all times by election officials and for rules that allow "ballot harvesting" be eliminated.
He also told the crowd that he planned to order flags to half-staff on the day of Limbaugh's interment. Limbaugh, who died of cancer earlier this week, was a resident of the state.
Cheers erupted among the dozens of maskless DeSantis supporters who blatantly disregarded Palm Beach County's facial covering mandate, which has been extended for 30 days until mid-March.
Under the ordinance, facial coverings must be worn by people "obtaining any good or service or otherwise visiting or working in any business or establishment, including entering, exiting, and otherwise moving around within the establishment."
Those businesses include hotels, at which Friday's event took place.
"This event was not coordinated by the county. It is up to the Hilton to enforce mask mandates in their facilities," said John Jamason, a spokesman for Palm Beach County. "Complaints about businesses continue to come in to our compliance hotline and the county responds with education and enforcement when needed."
Jamason added that Deputy County Administrator Jon Van Arnam sent the following email to county commissioners about the DeSantis event.
"Approximately 15 minutes before the Governor’s 10:00 am press event this morning at the Airport Hilton, we were informed that a large audience (approximately 100-150) was in attendance and numerous individuals were not wearing facial coverings or masks. We immediately dispatched a CECT representative to the event. We have spoken to Hilton management and will be following up with them and event organizers in accordance with our normal compliance procedures."
According to Jamason, it would be up to Palm Beach County's Code Enforcement and Compliance team to determine if the hotel will face any repercussions.
The Hilton Palm Beach Airport Hotel and DeSantis' office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A spokeswoman for Hilton Brand Communications said the hotel is an independently owned and operated property, therefore she could not speak on the hotel’s behalf.
According to the county's Code Enforcement and Compliance Team, which investigates alleged violations of the county's COVID-19 mandates, 8,204 complaints have been processed since last year, resulting in 190 written warnings, 78 notices of violation, and 26 business closures.
The Hilton Palm Beach Airport Hotel had not received any prior complaints before Friday, according to the latest numbers from the Code Enforcement and Compliance Team.
This story was originally published by Matt Papaycik on WPTV in West Palm Beach, Florida.