Gov. DeSantis unleashes ‘grim reaper of business licenses’ on Orlando pub that flouted COVID rules

Gov. Ron DeSantis at Orlando news conference, June 23, 2020. Credit: Florida Channel screenshot.

State agents have suspended the liquor license of a bar near the University of Central Florida’s campus where massive parties apparently transmitted COVID-19 to dozens of staff and customers.

And they promise the same for establishments flouting social distancing rules.

An emergency order signed Monday named The Knight’s Pub in Orlando, where contact tracing has suggested that 13 employees and at least 28 patrons became infected. Inspections on June 5 and June 6 revealed that the pub was flouting rules against allowing patrons to congregate at the bar and requiring social distancing, the document says.

During a news conference in Orlando, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he is prepared to work with establishments that inadvertently violate his COVID guidelines, which restricts bars, restaurants, and other businesses to 50 percent capacity.

“If they’re operating at 55 percent, OK, give them a warning; tell them, ‘Hey, 50,’ DeSantis said.

“But if you go in and it’s just like mayhem, like Dance Party USA and it’s packed to the rafters, that’s just cut and dry, and that’s not an innocent mistake,” he said.

The move came amid evidence of community spread of COVID, which DeSantis has conceded is a growing disease vector in Florida, particularly among people in their 20s and 30s. He has suggested that is the reason for Florida’s growing number of positive test results — and not necessarily his decision to begin reopening the state’s economy.

The latest numbers from the Florida Department of Health, as of 11 a.m. Tuesday, showed 103,506 COVID infections and 3,237 deaths.

DeSantis said he gave this instruction to Halsey Beshears, secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which administers liquor licenses: “No tolerance for

that. Just suspend the license and then we’ll move on. And then people will hopefully get the message that these guidelines are in place for a reason.”

State agents are on duty between 5 p.m. and 1 a.m. monitoring compliance with social distancing and sanitation guidelines, Beshears said. He added that agents have received 106 similar complaints since June 6, when DeSantis allowed bars to reopen. The establishments tended to comply with orders to follow the guidelines, he said.

“Those that were flagrant, we’ll be suspending their license,” he said.

“He’ll be kind of the grim reaper of business licenses, because there’s not going to be any tolerance” for flagrant violations, DeSantis said of his secretary.

Dr. George Ralls, quality director for the Orlando Health Orlando Regional Medical Center, confirmed that during the past week or so positive coronavirus test results in his area have come in at rates of 10 percent or more, compared to around 2 percent earlier in the pandemic.

“It really has to do with the fact that there’s been more widespread community transmission,” Ralls said. “And that’s translated into the patients we’re seeing.”

DeSantis specifically asked Dr. Sunil Desai, president of the medical group, whether the problem was businesses reopening or community spread.

“It’s on the social side,” Desai said. “All of a sudden you’re at a party and the guard goes down.”

“It is completely compatible to have business reopenings and maintain a safe community.  We’ve just got to be really thoughtful about the way we interact in the rest of the times we’re around each other,” Ralls said.