DeSantis lifts coronavirus restrictions; restauranteurs cheer Phase 3
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis said he was lifting COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants across Florida as he pushed the state into Phase 3 of reopening.
DeSantis also said any local government limitations affecting restaurants and other businesses would have to be justified by his administration.
The Phase 3 order will allow theme parks to operate at full capacity and lift any restrictions on gatherings, although the state still is recommending people avoid crowded spaces.
Bars can go beyond 50% capacity, if local governments give them the green light, DeSantis said.
“We’re also saying in the state of Florida, everybody has an opportunity and the right to work,” DeSantis said in announcing the reopening, flanked by restaurateurs in St. Petersburg.
“Every business has the right to operate. If some of the locals, they can do reasonable regulation, but you can’t just say ‘no’ after six months and just have people twisting in the wind,” he added.
But local governments can't force restaurants to operate below 50% capacity without "justification."
The executive order issued by DeSantis is effective immediately.
DeSantis’ announcement came as the state added another 120 deaths from COVID-19, with 13,915 Floridians now dead of the virus. Another 2,809 cases reported Friday brought the total infected to 695,887 in the state since the pandemic began last spring.
Florida’s positivity rate for new virus cases has averaged 4.5% the past two weeks, down sharply from early July highs that topped 15%. Hospitalizations also are down from mid-summer spikes, with 2,121 in the hospital for COVID-19 on Friday, according to state data.
Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, where infections and deaths have been highest, have been slower with reopening, but are allowed to participate in Friday’s Phase 3 expansion.
The governor’s announcement was good news for restaurant owners, but the mindset of many diners might still be cautious, said Adam Barringer, owner of the beachside SoNapa Grille in New Smyrna Beach.
“From the business aspect, we’re certainly excited that we’re going to 100%,” said Barringer, adding that the restaurant’s emphasis on take-out and delivery service has prevented a downturn in business despite the pandemic restrictions.
He expects that aspect of the business will continue to be strong.
“I think we still have customers that don’t want to sit in a full restaurant,” Barringer said. “So we’re going to continue with the take-out and explore DoorDash and Grubhub to make sure we’re still hitting on all cylinders and serving customers how they want to be served.
Barringer expects the transition to full capacity to be a gradual one at his restaurant.
“Yes, we are able to go to full capacity, but we still have to be cognizant that some customers still might not be wanting someone seated in a booth right next to them,” he said. “We also have to make some adaptations to our staffing levels, but we’ve pivoted every step of the way (during the pandemic) and this is a positive way to pivot, that’s for sure.”
For Douglas Rand, co-owner of two restaurants in Volusia County with his wife, Lillian, there are still questions about how the transition will work.
“I’m not sure what it really means to us,” Rand said. “He (DeSantis) didn’t say anything about reducing social distancing or the mask thing and, to me, that’s the biggest thing we face. How can you open at 100% and keep people 6 feet apart?”
The Rands own and operate Billy’s Tap Room & Grill, a longtime fixture on East Granada Boulevard in Ormond Beach, and Doug & Lil’s Potato Patch, a diner on South Woodland Boulevard in DeLand. With its capacity of 150 customers, expanding service at Billy’s will be easier than at the 58-seat diner, Rand said.
“At the small restaurant, I have to turn tables and that’s where my sales are down more,” said Rand, who still called the governor’s announcement “a step in the right direction.”
“I think it will establish confidence for people to get out of the house more because of what DeSantis said and that’s the positive about it from my perspective,” he said.
The order also prohibits local governments from collecting fines stemming from such pandemic-related mandates as mask requirements. It wasn’t immediately clear whether removing this threat will undermine local mask policies that are in place in most of Florida’s urban areas.
In Orange City, city officials on Friday were unclear how the governor's announcement would affect the city's mask ordinance.
"The answer right now is that we don't know," said Danielle Fitzpatrick, Orange City spokeswoman. "Our legal counsel is reviewing the governor's executive order."
In Daytona Beach, city spokeswoman Susan Cerbone said she forwarded questions about the impact of the governor’s order on the city’s mask mandate to the city attorney’s office. The city’s mask ordinance adopted this summer also includes potential fines for those who don’t comply.
"Our city attorney hasn’t seen the executive order yet, but it’s our understanding that the governor’s order will preempt the city’s imposition of penalties for not wearing masks," Cerbone said.
In DeLand, the city attorney is reviewing the impact of the governor’s new executive order on the city’s mask mandate, said Chris Graham, city spokesman.
DeLand’s ordinance, adopted this summer, includes fines for those who don’t comply, an action now prohibited by the governor’s order.
“As far as we know, it doesn’t preclude us from having a mandate in place, it just precludes us from being able to impose a fine,” Graham said. “We haven’t handed out any fines before this, so as far as we’re concerned, it's going to be status quo. Right now, people need to wear masks if they go indoors and or into any business.”
Some epidemiologists said DeSantis is wrong to push forward with Phase 3.
“I think that’s an extraordinarily stupid move,” said Dr. Ira Longini, a biostatistician and epidemiologist at the University of Florida.
“Given the overall size of the epidemic in the U.S. and given the fact that we are heading into the fall and we still don’t know the full impact of the school and university openings, it seems quite premature to me to open up that much,” he added.
DeSantis’s decision to lift some of the final restrictions on businesses in the state is the latest move by the governor that seems to parallel President Donald Trump’s re-election themes. The president has endorsed his own handling of the coronavirus, downplayed its severity and campaigns on the promise of a quick return to a strong economy, which has been staggered nationally, and in Florida, by the virus.
On Thursday, DeSantis condemned as “draconian” the decision by Florida State University to suspend students who test positive for the virus but fail to isolate, or who attend or host large gatherings on or off campus. The policy was promoted by FSU President John Thrasher, a former Republican lawmaker and one-time head of the state Republican Party.
DeSantis, however, dismissed the impact of parties in spreading the virus, saying, “That’s what college kids do.”
The same day, the governor also took part in a health care roundtable with three scientists who promoted a return to all in-person classes at universities and public schools. They discouraged lockdowns and generally supported the concept of herd immunity, where enough people contract the virus that its spread is slowed.
Trump has also promoted what he has called a “herd mentality.” A top adviser to the president who also advances this approach, Dr. Scott Atlas, joined DeSantis for a three-city tour of Florida last month, minimizing the need for testing people who don’t show symptoms of the virus,
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which briefly endorsed this policy at Atlas’s urging, reversed that position earlier this month and said testing of those exposed to coronavirus remains critical to containing the disease.
DeSantis on Friday also pointed to a chart showing the “survival rate” of COVID-19 sufferers in various age groups, numbers that he sees as reinforcing his view of focusing on keeping the highly contagious disease away from older Floridians, but allowing the rest of the state to operate normally.
Florida, the nation’s biggest toss-up state in the race between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden, is basically a dead heat, according to most polls. For Trump to win re-election, most analysts say he needs Florida’s 29 electoral votes.
The economy and coronavirus are listed as the top two issues on voters’ minds, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll of Floridians this week.
Longini, at UF, said the Phase 3 reopening runs the risk of undermining what has been improving virus numbers in the state.
“I don’t see why Florida thinks it’s immune to having a resurgence of the virus,” Longini said. “It’s very simple epidemiologic logic.”