Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis moved Friday to not only allow bars and restaurants to open at full capacity, he said he’d override local efforts to keep them closed despite the raging coronavirus pandemic.
On the same day Florida surpassed 14,000 coronavirus deaths, DeSantis announced that the state was immediately moving to the third phase of its three-phase reopening plan. Bars, restaurant, gyms, shops, stadiums, and theme parks can operate at 100 percent capacity, with only some room for local limitations, according to the state’s plan.
DeSantis, a Trump acolyte whose lax response to the pandemic has enraged many in his state and across the country, said he’d sign an order Friday to guarantee restaurants operate at a minimum 50 percent capacity “regardless of local rule.” Any city or county that wants to restrict capacity to between 50 and 100 percent will have to provide justification and outline the cost of it, he said.
He even said he’d forgive all fees and penalties handed to people for violating social distancing orders, and prevent local governments from collecting any outstanding fines.
“We’re probably the most open big state in the country,” DeSantis argued in a press conference, touting record tourism summers for some panhandle communities. “We’re not closing anything going forward.”
Les Miller Jr., head of the board of county commissioners in Hillsborough County, which has its own mask ordinance, said he was baffled.
“I don’t understand why he’s going to phase three when the numbers in the state of Florida are starting to go up,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “The CDC has always said that before you open up totally, your positivity rate should be 5 percent or lower, and the state is at 12 percent.
“I don’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing except for he wants to open up the economy before the elections.”
DeSantis’ state became a major coronavirus hotspot in June as new coronavirus cases reached over 10,000 per day. While the situation has improved since the dire days of high summer, the case count increased slightly again this month to around 2,300 per day, and an encouraging drop in hospitalizations plateaued.
Dr. Bernard Ashby, a Miami cardiologist and health-policy expert, said DeSantis was “forcing us to make the decision between opening our economy or having an increase in infections.”
“We’re forced into this false dichotomy because the governor and our leadership are not taking the appropriate steps to mitigate any further outbreaks,” Ashby, the state’s lead physician for the Committee to Protect Medicare, told The Daily Beast. “So these measures that he’s doing to reopen the economy [are] almost sure to lead to further outbreaks and another spike in our pandemic.”
The news was met with a mixed response from business owners, too. “I look at my staff first and myself and my family,” Vishal Chunilal, owner of Oviedo Brewing Co., told the Orlando Sentinel. He said he wouldn’t fully reopen until he could come up with his own plan to do so safely.
DeSantis—a Navy vet who has likened reopening schools to a SEAL mission—has embraced rolling back already-tame restrictions in Florida and has refused a statewide mask mandate, a move even other southern GOP governors, like those in Mississippi and Alabama, eventually embraced as their virus situations spiraled.
Earlier this month, he helped throw out a state order that had shuttered bars since June, replacing it with a directive to allow them to open at 50 percent capacity.
Bars are viewed by public health experts as proven flashpoints for spreading the virus, given that people drinking may be less likely to follow social distancing measures.
When asked Friday to confirm the state was entering a “full Phase Three,” DeSantis told reporters there would be different considerations for bars given that “there have been some issues” with them.
“What we said to the locals on that is, OK, the bars are status quo from what we have” the governor said. “If you want to go beyond the 50, you can authorize it and do it. We’re not telling you you have to. But we’re not going to stand in the way of that, so that’ll be a local decision if they want to try to do more capacity in some of the bars and pubs.”
According to the state’s reopening plan, Phase Three also includes downgrading messaging to the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions. They can resume public interactions but should practice social distancing, the advice says.
Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, an epidemiologist at Florida International University, told The Daily Beast she was concerned that potentially “people are going to interpret [DeSantis’ announcement] as if COVID-19 is behind us, and it’s not.”
She said the state’s current case numbers show that community transmission is still happening in Florida and “the potential is there that transmission could increase pretty rapidly given the underlying number of infected people that we have in the state right now.”