Gov. DeSantis okays the opening of bars, movie theaters, and more, but warns: ‘The virus isn’t gone’

A movie theater on International Drive in Orlando. Gov. Ron DeSantis' new executive order allows these and other businesses to reopen at reduced capacity and under personal distancing and sanitation strictures. Credit: Esmeralda Jave via Wikimedia Commons

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Wednesday that most of Florida will enter Phase 2 of his plan to reopen the economy at 12:01 a.m. on Friday, meaning that bars, movie theaters, and tattoo parlors can reopen subject to social distancing and sanitation requirements.

DeSantis said during a news conference in Orlando that the move is justified by downward trends in key measurements of the COVID-19 pandemic, including ICU hospitalizations, positive viral testing results, patients on ventilators, and diagnoses of flu- and COVID-like illnesses.

“The virus isn’t gone,” DeSantis stressed, and the state will continue to aggressively test for the novel coronavirus.

“But I think we have an opportunity to continue to move forward in a safe, smart, step-by-step approach. I think it’ll give more people in Florida more opportunities, and I think it’s the right way to go forward.”

As of about 1 p.m., the Florida Department of Health reported 58,764 COVID-19 infections — up from 57,447 the day before — and 2,566 resident deaths.

The move to Phase 2 for now leaves out the three counties with the highest caseloads — Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach. However, they can submit plans tailored to local conditions.

The state reported 18,456 infections in Miami-Dade; 7,339 in Broward and 6,477 in Palm Beach.

DeSantis signed a new executive order instigating Phase 2. Here‘s a Florida Phoenix story with background about Florida’s progress through the three-phase reopening protocol established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Under the new rules, bars can reopen at 50 percent capacity indoors and full use of outdoor seatings, but cannot offer bar-top service. That means patrons will have to sit at a table rather than belly up to the actual bar.

However, restaurants, while also subject to social distancing and sanitary requirements, will be able to provide bar-top service.

“This section does not apply to nightclubs,” the order says.

Entertainment venues including movie theaters, playhouses, concert halls, arcades, and bowling alleys, too, will reopen at half capacity and with the same distancing and sanitary rules.

Pari-mutuel facilities may reopen if they present an acceptable plan to avoid viral transmission and the county government says OK.

“It’ll be similar to what the theme parks did. We just want to make sure that there’s a plan and that people are adhering to the necessary safety protocols,” DeSantis said.

Personal services establishments, including tattoo parlors and massage and therapists, and tanning salons can reopen under similar restrictions.

“If you stick to the Department of Health guidance, you can do it,” he said.

The governor stressed that especially vulnerable people, including the elderly and those with serious underlying health conditions, should continue to avoid crowds. The new plan encourages testing of long-term care workers.

He said everyone should avoid gathering in groups of more than 50 people, and that people gathering for weddings or funerals should be screened for COVID-19 through temperature checks and questioning regarding possible exposure.

The state’s public universities will present their reopening plans on June 23, DeSantis said.

DeSantis had already allowed some activities that the CDC envisioned for Phase 2, including gym workouts, barber shops and hair and nail salons, elective surgeries, and vacation rentals — but he had not formalized Phase 2 until now.

Similarly, DeSantis has allowed theme parks to open if they come up with a plan to do so safely. Universal Studio’s Orlando-area resorts are the first to reopen under that protocol. One of those facilities was the site of Wednesday’s news conference.

“When you have places like Universal that are making sure everyone’s safe … that gives people confidence that they can come and enjoy themselves. Really, I think Florida’s leading the way on that,” the governor said.

DeSantis was asked about his order to screen travelers from viral hot spots — chiefly the New York City area and Louisiana. He said about 50,000 screenings have been done and that the move discouraged people from bringing the virus to Florida but that he planned to consider dropping it in light of improvements in some areas.

“I don’t want to have restrictions just to have them,” he said.

The new order extends DeSantis’s March 20 suspension of public meetings by government bodies until the end of the month. They may deliberate electronically instead.

DeSantis has been angling to bring the Republican National Convention to Florida in light of the rumble between President Trump and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper over whether it could be held safely in Charlotte. Trump announced Tuesday that he was seeking a new venue.

“My view would be, it should be a default yes. And then, as we get closer, you can make determinations about how you do it,” he said. “If you need to call an audible, you can always call an audible” depending on conditions at the time.

He mentioned Orlando, Jacksonville, and Miami as potential venues.

The president has the CDC at his disposal, the governor noted. And he said he was not prepared “to just brush away a potential $100 million impact when we have a good chance of being able to do it.”

Even as a Republican, he said, “if [Joe] Biden called me and said they wanted to do Dem here, I would support that.”

DeSantis said he continues to encourage major league sports to begin training in Florida if their home states won’t allow it. In fact, he’s barred local governments from interfering with that effort.

“The first sport back, if it is the NBA, I think they’re going to be able to bring more fans into the fold. Here in Orlando would be a great place to do it. I’d say the same for baseball” and soccer, he said. “Orlando really can be the epicenter for the comeback of professional sports.”