Professional wrestling company WWE is an essential business and can continue operating during the coronavirus pandemic, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has decided.
The state government issued an order on April 9 allowing professional sports to resume production "only if the location is closed to the general public," a memo says, putting the entertainment company on par with the likes of grocery stores, banks and hospitals.
The WWE, which has been airing pretaped matches, resumed live operations without audiences Monday in response to the order.
In the WWE training facility in Orlando, Florida, "Monday Night Raw" has kicked off its live return. "WWE Smackdown," also taped from the Orlando training facility, is among the programs that are expected to make a return this week.
One of its employees has tested positive for the coronavirus, also known as Covid-19. "We believe this matter is low risk to WWE talent and staff, as the individual and a roommate became symptomatic in the days following exposure to two people working in acute health care on the evening of March 26, after WWE's TV production on a closed set was already complete," a WWE spokesperson told CNBC. "The employee had no contact with anyone from WWE since being exposed to those two individuals, is doing well, and made a complete recovery."
The WWE is controlled by Vince McMahon, a longtime friend of President Donald Trump and husband of Linda McMahon, who served as the Small Business Administration's chief in the Trump administration. Linda McMahon, also a former CEO of WWE, is currently the chair of American First Action, a pro-Trump Super PAC. DeSantis, a Republican, tied himself tightly to Trump's agenda when he ran for governor in 2018.
DeSantis was one of the most recent governors to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, advising Floridians to stay home on April 1, weeks after several governors across the United States had already put the same order in place in their respective states.
Florida, with 21,019 confirmed cases so far, ranks in eighth place in terms of states with the most confirmed coronavirus cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
DeSantis held off on issuing a stay-at-home order for weeks even as he faced national criticism for his delay.
He has received pushback not only for avoiding issuing a statewide stay-at-home order, but also for making false claims. On the same day that his office released the memo granting the WWE status as an essential business, he incorrectly said that people under 25 have not died in the United States because of the coronavirus.
"This particular pandemic is one where, I don't think nationwide there's been a single fatality under 25. For whatever reason it just doesn't seem to threaten, you know, kids," DeSantis said on Thursday.
DeSantis still has earned support from Trump, who last week in a White House press briefing said he trusted the Florida governor's decisions.
"I like to allow governors to make decisions without overruling them," Trump said when asked if he'd recommend that schools open up in Florida. "I would rather have them make their own decisions."
The United States leads in confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The outbreak has spread to dozens of countries globally, with more than 1.9 million confirmed cases worldwide and over 120,449 deaths so far, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. There are at least 582,500 cases in the United States and at least 23,649 deaths, according to the latest tallies.
A spokesperson from DeSantis' office told CNBC that the WWE is considered an essential business because it is "critical to Florida's economy. It is important to note that professional sports activities may only be considered essential if the event location is closed to the general public."
In a statement to CNBC, the WWE said its programs offer a necessary distraction to people staying at home because of the coronavirus outbreak.
"We believe it is now more important than ever to provide people with a diversion from these hard times," WWE said. "As a brand that has been woven into the fabric of society, WWE and its Superstars bring families together and deliver a sense of hope, determination and perseverance."