DeSantis administration envisions long recovery from COVID-19 restrictions

Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference April 29 in the state Capitol, discussing his "Safe. Smart. Step-by-Step." Plan for Florida's Recovery. Credit: Screenshot, Florida Channel.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is taking first steps to return Florida to normal by slightly loosening restrictions on business activity and individual people, but a task force report makes clear that the road will be long as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

The governor’s office released the report of his Re-Opening Florida Task Force after DeSantis outlined his initial plan on Wednesday evening. The report lays out a three-phase process linked to milestones achieved in containing the new coronavirus, drawing upon guidelines issued by the White House.

The panel, comprising political and business leaders, wanted to go further initially than the governor would accept. For example, it suggested reopening restaurants if they limited capacity to 50 percent of normal; DeSantis insisted on a limit of 25 percent.

Similarly, he declined its recommendation to reopen movie theaters and personal services establishments including hair salons, at 50 percent capacity. The task force also wanted to reopen sporting venues and gyms at limited capacity but DeSantis rejected that proposal.

Museums and libraries may reopen at one-quarter capacity if local officials allow it, but interactive features including child play areas must remain closed.

Additionally, medical providers can conduct nonessential surgeries as long as they don’t consume beds needed for COVID patients.

The new rules take effect at 12:01 a.m. on Monday. The governor issued a different executive order to bridge the gap between then and expiration of his existing stay-home directives on Thursday.

Although federal social distancing guidelines are fading, in Florida they will persist even through Phase 3 of the recovery, which like Phase 2 will begin “when there is no evidence of a rebound or resurgence of COVID-19 cases,” the report says.

However, the governor’s new executive order in some cases uses language that is not mandatory.

For example, the executive order related to senior citizens and individuals with significant underlying medical conditions says they “are strongly encouraged to stay at home” and take all measures to limit the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

    The executive order also says that people “should avoid” congregating in large groups, and they “should avoid” nonessential travel outside of the United States and cities outside of Florida with significant cases of COVID-19.

The order does provide for misdemeanor penalties for businesses that disobey the restrictions, and state business regulators are empowered to take administrative action against violators.

DeSantis underscored during a news conference Wednesday that he was talking about an incremental process, but that he understood that lives and jobs hang in the balance.

“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,” he said.

The task force report recounts continuing points of concern, including state aid for businesses that need protective equipment for employees and customers, and for managing disasters like hurricanes as the pandemic lingers.

“Regarding COVID-19, the unique issues of this public health crisis may require emergency management officials to consider stay-at-home orders instead of evacuating people in a storm’s path,” the report suggests. It even floats using Uber and Lyft to assist with evacuations if necessary.

The governor emphasized that the reopening could begin because Florida appears to have wrestled the pandemic to manageable size.

For example, the report documents a decline in emergency room reports of flu-like illnesses from 15,474 on March 15 to 2,049 on April 19. COVID-19-like illnesses declined from 11,290 to 2,762. ER reports of cough, fever, and shortness of breath are trending down from peaks ranging from mid-March to early April. Same goes for the rate of COVID-19 test results, which peaked on April 8 at 15.5 percent and as of Tuesday was 4.7 percent.

Even in hardest-hit Southeast Florida the available bed capacity in hospitals ranged from around 32 percent in Miami-Dade and Broward to nearly 45 percent in Palm Beach counties. (Stringent stay-home guidelines will continue to govern those counties.)

“With these critical benchmarks achieved and a flattening of the curve, the state stands ready to begin Phase 1 of a multi-phase path toward the gradual elimination of restrictions on movement, congregation, and participation in society,” the report says.

However, other data points show that infections and deaths continue to rise — which DeSantis expected. The Florida Department of Health on Thursday reported 33,690 COVID-19 infections and 1,268 deaths, with increases compared to Wednesday in both of those measures.

The task force report adds that, “The state should continually review any sudden, unexplained spikes in the number of COVID-19 cases, while factoring in increases in testing and monitor any increases in hospitalizations. In extreme situations, the governor may deploy a geographically targeted response in consultation with public health officials.”

A key benchmark is hospital capacity, defined as ability respond to surges in COVID cases; adequate supplies of protective gear for health workers; and a robust capacity to test for the new coronavirus. It envisions conducting 30,000 tests per day by May 15 and 40,000 by June 15. (The state reportedly does around 9,000 tests per day at present.)

For individual people, that means to continue with social distancing, washing hands frequently, wearing masks in public — though that is not a mandate, according to the executive order — covering coughs and sneezes, disinfecting surfaces where the virus might linger.

Businesses in which people might come in contact with the coronavirus should also encourage social distancing, supply hand sanitizer, and require employees to wear masks or other protective gear. “Do not allow symptomatic people to physically return to work until they meet CDC criteria to do so and are cleared by a medical provider.”

In Phase 2, vulnerable people should continue to stay at home, but if they do need to go out observe social distancing. Healthy people should avoid gatherings of more than 50. Employers should continue encouraging telecommuting but begin planning for normal operations. They should screen employees who do return to the workplace.

Local governments could resume in-person meetings, as long as no more than 50 people attend. Bars could operate at 50 percent capacity with attention to social distancing. Restaurants, gyms, theaters, bowling alleys, and other entertainment venues could operate at 75 percent capacity but employees in contact with the public should wear face masks.

“Large spectator sporting events should limit occupancy of venues to 50 percent of building capacity and use strict social distancing,” the report says. “Theme parks may consider re-opening with capacity limits, strict social distancing and proper measures to clean and disinfect.”

Vacation rentals could open to in-state clients but not to people traveling internationally or from domestic hot spots.

Phase 3 envisions resumption of public interactions by members of vulnerable groups, with care to maintain social distancing. “Non-vulnerable populations should consider minimizing time spent in crowded environments.” Healthy people could return to workplaces but vulnerable people should continue to telecommute.

Local governments could resume public meetings. Employees could resume nonessential travel, but bosses should beware any symptoms of COVID. Bars, restaurants, and gyms could reopen with “limited public distancing protocols” and close attention to sanitation. State parks, theme parks, and sporting venues could reopen subject to social distancing.

Personal services and retail businesses could resume normal operations subject to sanitary safeguards.