Gov. DeSantis leaving closure of beaches, bars, and restaurants to local government discretion

State and local officials, worried about the spread of COVID-19, are cracking down on mass Spring Break crowds like the one shown in this archival image from Daytona Beach in 2004. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Gov. Ron DeSantis has announced a $50 million bridge loan program and tax assistance to help small businesses survive the hit they’re taking from the COVID-19 epidemic.

What he hasn’t announced was the broad state-level swipe that he’d signaled over the weekend against large gatherings at restaurants, bars, and beaches.

During a news conference Monday at the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, DeSantis stressed the importance of securing buy-in from the public about the need for stringent restrictions on people’s activities.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to have everyone on the same sheet of music to be able to make this stuff work,” he said.

DeSantis added that he interpreted guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, on social distancing to curb the spread of coronavirus to suggest deference to local officials. “We’re going to internalize that and then see what happens in terms of where we come out on that,” he said of the CDC advice.

“I think what we would likely do is issue kind of a basic guidance for restaurants and then allow localities to tailor that based on their circumstances. If you look around the state of Florida, this is not uniform in terms of where the virus is percolating.”

As for bars and nightclubs, however, “I think those are hard to justify at this point.”

Formal action on that point might issue Tuesday morning, he said.

The issue matters because of the threat that otherwise healthy young people could pass the virus among themselves while remaining unsymptomatic and then to populations most at risk to fatal complications: the elderly and people with serious underlying medical conditions.

DeSantis did praise the local governments that have closed beaches to Spring Break masses.

“There is concern when you have hundreds and hundreds of kids gathering like that,” he said. “But I think that probably needs to be take on a case-by-case basis. It’s not probably advisable to have Spring Break gatherings on the beaches, but to have folks with their own little family or something, I’m not sure that’s the most likely place where you’d see a transition.”

He defended taking a less stringent approach than governors in other states. For example, six counties in the San Francisco Bay region have issued “shelter in place” orders directing 6.7 million residents to stay home through April 7 “except for essential needs” like food shopping and visits to pharmacies or banks.

Nonessential businesses including gyms, nightclubs, restaurants, and bars will have to close.

DeSantis answered a question about Florida’s approach with rhetorical questions of his own: “What is the road here that we’re going to be traveling? How sustainable is some of the stuff that some people are advocating or some people have done?” he said.

“The fact of the matter is that we can succeed at social distancing up until the point where the public decides that they’ve had enough of it. So, I think we want to do it in a way that will be effective at addressing the virus’s spread but is also not going in a direction where people are going to channel their activity in other ways that might be just as problematic.”

He did praise local officials who have cancelled St. Patrick’s Day celebrations to avoid mass crowds.

“Look, it’s a great day to have fun. We’ll just make it better next year,” he said. “Now’s a time to stay home. You can fire up a Guinness in your own house — no problem with that. You’re not going to get any arguments from me.”

Regarding the bridge loans, the governor said he’s asked the U.S. Small Business Administration to begin sending money to help businesses but didn’t expect those resources to solve the problem. The state loan program is intended to quickly put money into cash registers of businesses with between two and 100 employees.

“This amount may be expanded at a later time based on demand and necessity,” he said.

“You can get $50,000 immediately. One-year term. A limit of one loan per business. Zero percent fixed rate and no prepayment penalty,” DeSantis added. “This is a way to kind of keep people afloat and then when we get on the other side of this, hopefully, can be able to get back to business as usual.”

Additionally, the Florida Department of Revenue will ease deadlines for payment of the state’s corporate income and sales taxes until the end of the year. “It probably doesn’t make that big of a difference to the state either way, but it may make a big difference to a company that is having problems with cash flow.”

In other developments, DeSantis said he has asked the federal government to repatriate 61 Florida residents who were being held under isolation in Georgia, and that they were arriving Monday. State health officials would return them to their homes and arrange testing and assistance.

“I’d rather have them self-isolating back at home than be in another state at an Air Force Base, where the accommodations may not be what we would like,” he said.

Plans continue to establish drive-through coronavirus testing, he said, and the Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, and Orange County Convention Center have agreed to let their parking lots serve as testing sites.

The Republican DeSantis defended President Trump against reports that he’d told the nation’s governors during a conference call to rely on their own devices to secure medical equipment. The New York Times had reported that Trump said this: “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves.”

The remarks had been misinterpreted, the governor said. What Trump intended is that states should acquire equipment if they can find it independent of federal sources. That’s what Florida is doing, he said. The feds will still pay a 75 percent match toward those expenses.

“Be careful what you believe,” the governor said. “What he was saying was something that’s very sensible.”