Florida deems WWE pro-wrestling 'essential business' amid coronavirus pandemic

The mayor made the decision made after talks between WWE and Florida's governor.

April 14, 2020, 2:13 PM

As most businesses in Florida have been ordered shut to help fight the spread of the coronavirus, the state has deemed World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) -- a company with past and present links to President Donald Trump -- "essential,” permitting the pro-wrestling company to continue live TV broadcasts from its Orlando training facility.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said at a press conference on Monday that despite Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis giving a statewide "shelter-in-place" order on April 3, the company was given the go ahead to resume operations amid the pandemic after speaking with the governor’s office.

Initially, WWE was not designated as an essential business which meant the company would have to comply with the governor's shelter-in-place order, Demings said. However, after the company, led by chairman and CEO Vince McMahon, had "some conversation" with DeSantis' office, the company was granted the distinction, according to Demings.

"With some conversation with the governor's office regarding the governor's order, they were deemed an essential business," Demings said. "And so, therefore, they were allowed to remain open."

Trump has a close relationship with DeSantis, with Trump often lavishing praise over the Florida governor during his routine appearances at the president's campaign rallies in the state. "He’s a great guy, he’s a tough guy, he’s a brilliant guy and he’s our governor," Trump said at a Sunrise rally last November.

Like DeSantis, WWE has close links to Trump, even inducting him into their Hall of Fame in 2013. Former WWE president and CEO Linda McMahon, the wife of current chairman of the company, served the president as administrator of the Small Business Administration from 2017 to 2019 and now is chairwoman of America First Action, the sole sanctioned pro-Trump super PAC.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment, and the Trump campaign declined to comment for this report.

According to a memo from DeSantis’ office on April 9, essential workers in Florida included "employees at a professional sports (league) and media production with a national audience -- including athletes, entertainers, production team, executive team, media team and any others necessary to facilitate including services supporting such production -- only if the location is closed to the general public."

The memo is dated the same day that McMahon's pro-Trump super PAC announced a $26.6 million investment in broadcast TV ad buys set to run in the fall in the battleground states of North Carolina and Florida.

The Florida governor's office did not respond to multiple questions regrading the timing of the super PAC's spending announcement or if any political connections played a role in the decision. A spokesperson for America First Action dismissed any link between the ad buy and the WWE decision as part of what the spokesperson called the "Trump Derangement Syndrome" and said the idea of a connection was an example of "looking to connect some sort of dots that simply don't exist." The spokesperson said the ad buy was planned more than a week before DeSantis' memo.

A spokesperson in DeSantis’s office told ABC News services like WWE, which was not specifically named in the memo, were characterized as essential "because they are critical to Florida's economy." The spokesperson noted that “the memo does not specify specific sports, as long as the event location is closed to the general public,” in regards to other organizations like the UFC being deemed essential in the future, which could also provide a path for other sports to start up again in the state.

On Monday, WWE returned to broadcasting "WWE Raw" live on USA from the company's training center at Full Sail University in Winter Park. The wrestling organization had previously aired pre-taped weekly shows on Fox and USA amid the pandemic, including airing a pre-taped two-night Wrestlemania event that featured retired New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

"We believe it is now more important than ever to provide people with a diversion from these hard times," WWE said in a statement to ABC News. "We are producing content on a closed set with only essential personnel in attendance following appropriate guidelines while taking additional precautions to ensure the health and wellness of our performers and staff. 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."

However, as the company moves forward with production, an employee of the company has already tested positive for the coronavirus after TV production had completed, WWE said in a statement.

“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,” the company said, adding that 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 company has faced some criticism over continuing to hold pro-wrestling events amid the pandemic, even while doing so in an empty arena with no fans. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said in an interview with CNN on Tuesday that having the WWE deemed an essential business “doesn't pass the smell test.”

“It’s hard to argue that wrestling is an essential activity,” said Suarez, adding that in Miami, given similar local shelter-in-place orders, it would be hard for pro-wrestling to "pass the smell test in terms of what is an essential activity.”

ABC News' John Santucci contributed to this report.