After a hellish summer, when Florida became a major hot spot for COVID-19, Governor Ron DeSantis has decided it’s time for everyone to grab a beer.
And experts are already worried what the public health fallout could be.
The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation announced in a statement Thursday that “at the direction” of the Republican governor an earlier order that had cut off bars from selling alcohol to be consumed on site was being thrown out, and instead, a new order will be in place that by Monday lets bars “operate at 50 percent of the facility’s indoor capacity.”
Going to a bar remains “potentially very risky,” warned Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, an epidemiologist at Florida International University, especially as the state continues to face community-wide transmission of COVID-19.
“I think that bars are probably one of the last things that you want to reopen because it’s hard to manage, it’s hard to keep people six feet apart,” Trepka said.
The decision on bars is among the latest instances of DeSantis pushing forward with a restriction-light approach during the pandemic, especially when compared with other governors. The vocal Trump ally has refused to mandate masks in the state, and proudly touted Florida’s May reopening effort. By late June, however, that push was falling apart as Florida became a national hot spot for the virus amid mounting cases.
In July, the state at one point hit a terrifying one day mark of 15,300 new cases according to The Orlando Sentinel. Case counts have improved since, with the state reporting 3,731 new cases Thursday, according to health department data. And DeSantis further touted his state’s situation on Twitter Friday, tweeting “the number of COVID+ patients currently hospitalized is down more than 70% since July.”
But Florida has only “just come out of a very difficult summer," Trepka said.
“I’m concerned we might repeat our summer again,” she said.
It’s not the first time DeSantis has tried to reopen bars during the pandemic. After originally shutting down watering holes on March 17 through an executive order, DeSantis announced that starting on June 5, bars in all but three counties could start entering phase two of the state’s pandemic reopening plan—allowing establishments to have 50 percent capacity indoors.
That directive didn’t last the month.
As the state’s coronavirus spiraled, Florida Secretary of Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Halsey Beshears, signed an emergency order on June 26 essentially reclosing bars in Florida.
Some wiggle room remained. Under Beshears’ late June order, restaurants that served booze could remain open as long as they met the standard of 50 percent or less of their gross revenue coming from alcohol sales. As a result, The South Florida Sun Sentinel reported, a trend of bars starting to serve food to keep people visiting their businesses.
But just because the state is moving forward on a key reopening doesn’t mean the situation in Florida is as rosy as DeSantis is suggesting, experts said.
Florida is in a precarious position, said Dr. Marissa Levine, a professor of public health and family medicine at the University of South Florida, who cautioned, “It wouldn’t necessarily take much for us to see another spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.” It’ll be hard to interpret the impact alone of bar openings because schools and universities are reopening as well, the health expert said.
“I think it has the potential to add to the challenge that we have,” Levine said. “How much, I don’t know. I think we’re already in a precarious situation and we have the potential for flu season to make it even more complex.”
In announcing the rollback on the restriction for bars Thursday, Beshears said in a statement he had met with “hundreds of owners of bars and breweries across the state,” and “heard their stories of struggle.” He also emphasized that he found there to be a “serious commitment to making health and safety a continuing priority in their businesses.”
“It’s time that we take this step, and it’s vital that we start moving forward with this sector of our hospitality industry who have endured one of the toughest paths for sustaining a business during this pandemic,” Beshears said in the statement.
While that key statewide hurdle for bars is being eased, Miami-Dade County mayor Carlos Gimenez isn’t willing to see the same thing happen locally. In his county, the Republican mayor made clear on Twitter Thursday that “bars will remain closed by emergency order until further notice.”
Earlier on Thursday, the governor targeted indoor capacity restrictions on restaurants during a roundtable, saying the 50 percent mark is “really arbitrary.”
“I mean, it was recommended from like some of these groups, but I'm not sure that there's a difference,” he said. “Why 50 and not 40, why 50 and not 70?”
The tensions between public health and the coronavirus economy have been persistent throughout the pandemic as leaders struggle to weigh the complex factors between conflicting schools of thought. That wasn’t lost on Jay Wolfson, senior associate dean of the Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida, who said he understands the decision to move forward with bars reopening.
“I think from a pure public health disease management perspective, it's probably not prudent,” he said. “From a pragmatic perspective, including public health, it’s something that’s going to happen. And we have to be pragmatic about monitoring it and dealing with it.”
Further weariness from some in the state remains clear ahead of Monday’s reopening for the bars. The state’s coronavirus situation improved after bars were closed down, Trepka said, adding later that she feels Florida reopened too fast in the early summer and that helped lead to “the incredible number of cases,” the state later saw.
“I think we need to learn from that and take things very slowly,” she said.
And Dr. Mona Mangat, who specializes in allergy immunology in St. Petersburg, Florida, and is a member of the Committee to Protect Medicare, slammed the reopening of bars as “a bad idea once again not driven by science.”
There’s been small progress in the state, but Florida has a “pretty high positivity rate.”
“To do this now just doesn't make any scientific sense at all,” Mangat said.