In a pandemic, as state officials desperately shut down parts of society to keep people away from one another, there are some services that most would agree must go on: Grocery stores feed the public. Health care workers tend to the infirm. Others maintain law and order, deliver goods and keep the lights on.
The list, typically, does not include the WWE.
Nevertheless, in Florida, World Wrestling Entertainment has found itself among the services considered “essential,” according to Mayor Jerry L. Demings of Orange County, where the sports entertainment business has a sizable training facility and has held recent events, including its marquee show, WrestleMania, this month.
Mr. Demings, speaking at a news conference on Monday, said the WWE was “not initially deemed an essential business,” and traced the change to discussions with the office of Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials.
Mr. DeSantis issued an executive order that went into effect on April 3, directing people to stay at home unless they were providing essential services or participating in essential activities. In a memo on April 9 from Jared Moskowitz, the director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, the state added a new category to its list of essential services: “employees at professionals sports and media production with a national audience” only if “the location is closed to the general public.”
“There was a review that was done,” Mr. Demings said Monday, in response to a question from a reporter about how the WWE can hold events at the training facility in light of the order. “With some conversations with the governor’s office regarding the governor’s order, they were deemed an essential business. Therefore, they were allowed to remain open.”
At a time when public health experts are imploring people to gather only if they have to, it has struck many as odd and even dangerous that a form of entertainment like pro wrestling — in which two or more people tussle, have close contact and sometimes throw objects at one another — has been deemed “essential.” Most professional, collegiate and amateur sports have opted to shut down or postpone games, matches and other events, including the Olympics.
That the news came as the WWE had recently acknowledged that an employee had tested positive for the virus only heightened the criticism. According to the WWE, the infected employee was not an “in-ring performer,” and had no contact with anyone else from the WWE since being exposed last month to two people working in health care.
A spokesman for the WWE said the company takes precautions to protect the health of its staff members and other workers.
“All WWE performers and staff are required to participate in medical screenings prior to entering any closed set,” the spokesman said. “Only essential personnel are on-site and social distancing is practiced outside of performances. After each performance, the set goes through ‘pandemic-level cleaning.’ When widespread testing becomes available, all talent will be tested before performing. We have recommended our talent to self-isolate when not performing.”
The move has also raised questions about the political influence of the WWE’s leadership, especially Vince McMahon, the chairman and chief executive of the WWE, and his wife, Linda McMahon, a former head of WWE. The couple has donated millions of dollars to President Trump’s foundation — and Ms. McMahon was appointed by Mr. Trump to lead the Small Business Administration (she resigned from that role in March 2019).
“We are in the middle of a public health crisis and the American people need to know the government is putting their needs first,” said Kyle Herrig, the president of the watchdog group Accountable.US, in a statement on Tuesday. “It is unfortunate but hardly surprising that corporate executives with close ties to President Trump are receiving special treatment from his allies. Like wrestling, the fix is in.”
The memo from Mr. Moskowitz does not single out the WWE as an essential service. State officials in the Emergency Operations Center and the governor’s office did not respond to questions about what other businesses might be affected. In an email on Tuesday, the Emergency Operations Center said that the affected services were “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,” the center said in the email.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Mr. DeSantis, a Republican, said his office was considering requests to be added to the state’s list of essential services on a case-by-case basis.
He said tapings of WWE events do not require many people to be on-site but can entertain many on television.
“We do need to support content, especially like sports and events,” he said. “Now, we’re not going to have crowds there. If NASCAR does a race and can televise it without large crows, I think that’s a good thing.”
He added, “I think people have been starved for content.”
The WWE spokesman said in an email that it was “now more important than ever to provide people with a diversion from these hard times.”
“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,” the spokesman said.
Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting from Miami.