ORLANDO, Fla. — Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings declared a local state of emergency Wednesday afternoon and mandated COVID-19 vaccination for county employees as coronavirus infections soar to levels not seen since the beginning of the year.

What You Need To Know

  • Orange County mayor declares state of emergency, mandates vaccinations for county employees

  • The sole county-run COVID-19 testing site has reached capacity several times in the past week

Demings also said all Orange County employees now are required to wear masks when inside county facilities.

On his local state of emergency, Demings said, "What that means is this: I will now urge our residents and visitors, vaccinated and unvaccinated, to wear masks when in an indoor space with others. We want our residents, businesses and visitors to follow updated CDC guidelines to make sure there won't be another shutdown like we experienced last year."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended this week that fully vaccinated people wear masks in areas of "substantial or high transmission" of COVID-19.

Demings' action came as health officials reported 1,371 new coronavirus cases in Orange County on Tuesday. He declared that as the highest number of new cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

Yet the mayor fell short of action from Miami-Dade County, where Mayor Daniella Levine Cava declared Wednesday that masks would be required at indoor county facilities. Her actions came despite an executive order from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that eliminated and superseded any local emergency orders that imposed COVID-related restrictions or mandates on businesses or people.

The actions from county governments come as the coronavirus' delta variant spreads quickly throughout the region, state and country and as Florida reportedly accounts for 20% of new cases, prompting organizations and businsses to take measures to fight the surge. 

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex announced Wednesday that it would require all guests, including those vaccinated against COVID-19, to wear face coverings at all of its indoor locations. Also, Google said it would postpone a return to the office for most workers until mid-October and would roll out a policy that eventually will require all employees to be vaccinated.

At the Orange County Tax Collector's Office, meanwhile, officials said current and new employees will have through August to get fully vaccinated or face possible termination.

Demings said the county's 14-day rolling positivity rate increased to 15.58%, up from 3.7% three weeks ago. He also said "we are anticipating an increase in upcoming infections" based on ribonucleic acid, or RNA, monitored in wastewater treatment facilities, which scientists use to detect disease outbreaks

Regarding his Wednesday actions, the mayor said: "You might ask, 'Why am I doing this?' Because I want to show our residents and visitors that Orange County is being proactive in lowering the spread of the virus, and we remain focused on the number of hospitalizations. I’m asking businesses to follow our lead. "We are therefore pleading that businesses and other public sector employers mandate that your employees get vaccinated and patrons and employees alike wear masks. We know that some employers have already taken this action."

He also said he expected "all of our theme parks to follow the CDC recommended guidelines."

Asked why he fell short of requiring residents and visitors to wear masks in certain cases, Demings said recently passed state laws limit the county's ability to establish such emergency mandates.

In the meantime, he said, "we’re going to stay true to form ... and follow the CDC recommended guidelines during this public health crisis."

On the vaccination requirement, Demings said the county now mandates that its 4,200 non-union employees get their first vaccination shot by Aug. 31 and their second — if their vaccine manufacturer requires it — by the end of September.

The county will negotiate an agreement with its union employees, he said.

County Attorney Jeffrey Newton noted two legal exceptions to the vaccine mandate: medical conditions or sincere religious beliefs against the vaccinations.

“If said employees do not have one of the lawful exemptions," Demings said, "they will be subject to disciplinary action, and it would be up to and including termination."

On Monday, the mayor declared that "we are now in crisis mode" in Orange County. He said at the time and reiterated Wednesday that hospitals throughout Central Florida have been seeing alarming numbers of critically ill COVID-19 patients, almost all of them unvaccinated.

On Wednesday, the mayor again noted that the rise in cases has prompted an increase in demand for coronavirus testing at Orlando's Barnett Park. As a result, that testing site had to close during the early afternoon almost every day last week, prompting county officials to explore the possibility of opening a second testing site.

The Barnett Park site remains open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week.

The county says it's seeing about a thousand new COVID-19 cases a day, mostly among unvaccinated residents. Officials say the county hasn't seen those numbers since the beginning of January.

AdventHealth officials said early this week they were noticing more pregnant women admitted with COVID-19, with at least two expectant mothers in intensive care. All pregnant women hospitalized with COVID-19 were unvaccinated, they said.

Demings' emergency order follows comments from early this month, when he recommended — note his change to "urge" on Wednesday — that people wear masks, regardless of vaccination status, when in close quarters. That marked nearly an about-face from early last month when he lifted a local state of emergency that aimed to fight the spread of the coronavirus. He said at the time that a new phase of the county’s reopening plan would lift all mask-wearing and physical-distancing requirements in previous emergency executive orders.

"Our goal is to mitigate the number of new cases," Demings said Wednesday. "Quite frankly, we believe that if we take these steps as a community, we will experience a significant decline in the virus in just a few weeks."

He added: "Let us be the model community on how to respond to COVID and remain open at the same time."