Pinellas County faces first COVID-19-related lawsuit after car wash sues over 'essential' service conflict

A St. Petersburg car wash business has filed a lawsuit against Pinellas County. It was one of many car washes forced to close in Pinellas County based on the leaders' interpretation of the statewide stay-at-home order.

Woodie's Wash Shack, located at 5601 66th Street North in St. Petersburg, filed a temporary injunction last week claiming it provides an "'essential service' under the list maintained by the Florida Division of Emergency Management."

Therefore, according to the lawsuit, it should remain open. 

Pinellas County Attorney Jewel White announced the lawsuit during Thursday's commissioner meeting.

"We had our first lawsuit served on the county regarding a COVID-related matter," White said. "[It was] filed by a local business seeking an injunction from a judge to allow their business to reopen."

RELATED: Coronavirus stay-at-home order: What is an essential business or activity in Florida?

She said Woodie's Wash Shack never referred to itself as a car wash in the lawsuit. According to its website, it describes itself as a "50's surf-inspired car wash."

"Ironically, they never once called themselves a car wash in the lawsuit. Rather, they refer to themselves as a sanitation business," White said.

In the lawsuit, the business claims it practices the following essential services listed under the governor's order:

"Workers providing disinfection services, for all essential facilities and modes of transportation"

"Employees supporting personal and commercial transportation services – including taxis, delivery services, vehicle rental services, bicycle maintenance and car-sharing services, and transportation network providers."

"Workers – including contracted vendors -- who maintain, manufacture, or supply equipment and services supporting law enforcement emergency service and response operations (to include electronic security and life safety security personnel)."

"Workers supporting groceries, pharmacies, convenience stores, and other retail (including unattended and vending) that sells human food, animal/pet food and pet supply, and beverage products, including retail customer support service and information technology support staff necessary for online orders, pickup and delivery."

"Workers supporting the sanitation and pest control of all food manufacturing processes and operations from wholesale to retail."

"Automotive repair, maintenance, and transportation equipment manufacturing and distribution facilities (including those who repair and maintain electric vehicle charging stations)."

However, Pinellas County leaders specifically lists car washes as a non-essential business under its safer-at-home order.

The full text of the lawsuit can be viewed below:

County Administrator Barry Burton said he has reached out to the governor's office to clarify the state's list of essential businesses and services, including car washes, but has not heard back.

If there are businesses that want to be categorized as "essential," White said there is a process for concerned residents to contact the state coordinating officer.

"That individual has the ability to add to the list of essential businesses or services. Here at the county level, we do not," White said.

When Governor Ron DeSantis' stay-at-home order went into effect on April 3, there was confusion as to how the local governments should interpret it. 

"There was very immediately a subsequent order issued that seemed to take away the authority of counties to do anything to the contrary," White said. "My opinion is it didn't take it away, it just restricted us to the point that we can be more strict than the state's order but not less strict. In other words, in my opinion, we cannot deem something as essential that the governor has not deemed essential."

Basically, she said, if a business is not deemed an essential business under the governor's order, it's not essential.

"It needs to be closed," she concluded. "I don’t want to speak for the sheriff but I don't really think it's fair for him to try and give direction to each of those deputies out there to perform an analysis as to whether somebody is washing a car or sanitizing a car."