DeSantis launches 1st phase of jumpstarting FL’s economy with partial restaurant and retail access, saying, ‘We should have hope’

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis discussed Phase One of reopening Florida following the coronavirus outbreak. Credit: Issac Morgan

Restaurants in Florida can re-open for outdoor service and at 25 percent capacity inside under Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to get the state economy moving again.

But restrictions on entering nursing homes will remain and movie theaters, bars, gyms, and hair salons will remain closed, DeSantis announced in the state capitol Wednesday. Additionally, elective surgeries may resume.

Vulnerable people, including the elderly and people with serious medical conditions, should continue to avoid the public, he said. And everybody should continue to observe physical distancing, avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, and wear face masks during unavoidable close interactions.

The new COVID-19 guidelines, which DeSantis characterized as a “baby step” toward normal, will take effect on Monday, he said. They will apply through most of the state, although not in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, which continue to lead the state in COVID-19 cases. Local officials there are OK with the arrangement, he said.

The Republican governor opened his remarks by lamenting the toll the pandemic has taken on Florida, including closed businesses, lost jobs, shuttered schools, canceled graduation ceremonies and proms, and a general climate of fear. He noted that his newborn daughter, Mamie, has yet to meet her grandparents.

“We have lost Floridians, which is never an easy thing. It’s been made all the more difficult by the fact that, due to visitor restrictions at hospitals, they were not even able to say goodbye to their loved ones,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion at times.

“Today, though, Florida will take a step — small, deliberate, methodical, and based on consultations with some of our greatest physicians — toward a more hopeful future,” he said.

His office had yet to release the governor’s written plan as of this writing, so it was unclear how the transition would proceed from his existing stay-home order, which expires on Thursday. That order contained exemptions for houses of worship, and he acted only after President Trump extended federal social-distancing guidelines through April.

Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, issued a written statement praising the governor’s approach.

“As state leaders, nothing is more important than the health, safety, and lives of our citizens,” she said. ”

“I am encouraged by this cautious approach, and I agree that Florida’s re-opening must be measured, in phases, and based on science and data. I remain concerned about key numbers in the weeks ahead, that testing must be increased and that all data must be accurately reported, both cases and deaths. We are all eager to get back to normal, and to do so safely without jeopardizing public health.”

Democratic Party chair Terrie Rizzo issued her own statement linking DeSantis to the president.

“Just like Trump, DeSantis did not spend his time at the bully pulpit thanking frontline workers or consoling families who have lost loved ones, but deriding the media and ‘doom and gloom’ scientific models that showed a no-action scenario. Enough with the self-congratulatory media performances, where are the tests?” she said.

The updated rules are possible because the trends have been running toward declining hospital admissions and fatalities, increasing availability of crisis care beds, and other measures, the governor said.

Under the new plan, schools, colleges, and universities will continue to employ distance learning, and long-term care facilities for the elderly will remain off limits to visitors. Restaurants that open at reduced capacity will need to maintain social distancing for patrons.

“I decline to go for movie theaters now. I just think it’s practically difficult to do the social distancing. Indoor environments, I think, are more likely for transmission,” he said. “Prudence dictates that we go a little slow on that.”

Restrictions on nonessential retail operation are being eased, but those shops will need to operate at 25 percent indoor capacity. They had been allowed to offer curbside or delivery services, similar to restraurants and bars.

Bars themselves will not reopen to indoor customers. DeSantis held off on reopening gyms pending evidence from other states about whether that would be safe. The same goes for hairdressers and other personal services.

He didn’t rule out opening outdoor sporting venues, including professional baseball, if it can be done consistent with social distancing guidelines. Golf has been allowed and hasn’t led to any outbreaks, DeSantis said. Neither has careful reopening of beaches, he added.

Business conventions might have to wait a while, he suggested.

However, officials will watch for surges in infections and act accordingly, the governor said. Additional steps toward complete reopening of the economy will come as warranted.

“Each phase, we’re thinking about weeks; we’re not thinking about months. We’re making progress. We need to continue to put people back to work in a safe, smart, and step-by-step way.”

DeSantis denounced critics of his approach to the pandemic and the news media as stoking fear that discouraged people needing medical attention for non-COVID ailments from seeking it. Early projections did envision an overwhelming caseload but social distancing appears to have forestalled that in Florida.

“The only thing we have to fear is letting fear overwhelm our sense of purpose and determination,” DeSantis said. His deliberate pace in reopening the economy is meant to inspire public confidence, he added.

“There’s been a lot that’s been done to try to promote fear, to promote worst-case scenarios, to drive hysteria, and I think people should know that that worst-case scenario thinking, that has not been proven to be true.”

Taking a page from Trump, his political patron, DeSantis also took a swipe at China.

“We did not ask to be put in this situation. This was thrust upon us largely because of the malfeasance of the Chinese Community Party,” he said.

He mocked “some of these talking heads on TV, particularly the ones who don’t want anybody to go back to work,” who manage to look well groomed despite the ostensible unavailability of haircuts.

DeSantis had been signaling his intentions for most of the past week, indicating that he favored out-doors exercise but not throwing open the doors to places where people might gather in large numbers, including movie theaters and sports facilities. He also indicated that elective surgeries might resume; he’d blocked them to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission and to reserve medical resources for a feared onslaught of viral infections.

“It’s not going to be something that a switch is going to be flipped. This is going to be slow and steady wins the race. It’s going to be very methodical, very data driven, and there’s going to be probably some people who think it’s too slow,” the governor said Tuesday while meeting with Trump at the White House.

Before issuing his stay-home order, the governor had adamantly resisted a state-wide shut-down, arguing that local governments were best positioned to protect their citizens and that being too restrictive about people’s movements might inspire push-back.

What changed his mind was President Trump’s decision a few days earlier to extend the national social-distancing advisory for another 30 days.

The order allowed recreational activities, such as walking, hiking, running, hunting, biking, and swimming, and taking care of pets and loved ones, as long as people observe social-distancing guidelines. Senior citizens and people with significant medical conditions were to remain at home and “take all measures to limit the risk of exposure to COVID-19.”

Michael Moline
Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.