State orders bars closed amid rampant COVID spread among young people; nearly 9,000 new cases seen

Bars and breweries can reopen Monday at half capacity. Green Parrot Bar, Key West. Credit: ArminFlickr - Wikimedia Commons.

Update: Adding language from the governor’s press conference.

State business regulators cut off service in bars across Florida Friday amid reports of rampant coronavirus transmission among young adults and as the Florida Department of Health reported that the COVID-19 caseload had spiked by nearly 9,000 overnight.

The actual number of newly reported infections was 8,942 and deaths stood at 39. The totals for the pandemic were 122,960 infections and 3,366 deaths. The report followed two straight days with more than 5,000 cases reported.

Halsey Beshears, secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, announced the bar closure via his Twitter feed.

“Effective immediately, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation is suspending on premises consumption of alcohol at bars statewide,” Beshears wrote.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday “took more countermeasures to stem a tide of coronavirus infections, as he closed bars, ordered restaurants to return to 50 percent capacity, shut river-rafting outfits and gave local officials more control over large gatherings ahead of the Fourth of July holiday,” The Dallas Morning News reported.

Meanwhile in Florida, Beshears tweeted later that the order doesn’t apply to restaurants, which Gov. Ron DeSantis has allowed to reopen under conditions similar to those that operated in bars. The state defines bars, pubs, and nightclubs as deriving more than 50 percent of their revenue from alcoholic beverages.

Beshear’s department released the text of the order, which argues that “some of these cases involving younger individuals are suspected to have originated from visits to bars, pubs, or nightclubs who have disregarded the restrictions” imposed by the governor.”

“[N]oncompliance by bars and other vendors licensed to sell alcoholic beverages for consumption on premises is suspected throughout the state to such a degree as to make individualized enforcement efforts impractical and insufficient at this time,” the order says.

Notwithstanding the “huge number of, quote, cases,” DeSantis insisted during a news conference in Fort Myers Friday afternoon: “Nothing has changed in the past week. We had a big test dump.”

Positive test results have been running in the neighborhood of 10 percent to 15 percent, he said, compared to 3 percent to 4 percent at the beginning of June.

“If I’m going to get 75,000 test results like we did today, you’re going to get a certain number of cases. If I’ve got 35,000 like we did earlier, obviously, you’ll get less. But that’s really what we’re seeing in terms of an increased positivity rate. Which is one of the major factors that’s driving the, quote, cases.”

Until recently, he argued, his strategy kept transmission in check while allowing people to work and move about. In the last few weeks, “I think its more, just, people want to be social. They want to interact. That’s why you’re seeing it so much with the younger folks who, quite frankly, are at much less risk.”

DeSantis mentioned the bar closings only in response to a question about the Texas reopening backtrack.

“Did you see what the DBPR secretary did this morning?” the governor asked a reporter. He described the move as a “major action.”

“When people follow the guidelines, we’ve not had any problems,” he said. “The reason why DBPR took it [Friday’s action] is ‘cause you had people who weren’t following it, there was widespread noncompliance, and that led to issues.”

The governor did say earlier this week that he had no immediate plans to enter Phase 3 of his reopening strategy, when local governments would resume public, in-person meetings and private businesses could open with limited social distancing protocols.

The bar service cut-off came three days after DeSantis described Beshears as follows: “He’ll be kind of the grim reaper of business licenses, because there’s not going to be any tolerance” for barkeepers ignoring the rules.

On Monday, the department issued an emergency suspension of the liquor license for The Knight’s Pub, a bar near the University of Central Florida’s campus in Orlando, after agents visited two nights running and found the establishment was allowing customers to congregate at the bar — in explicit defiance of the rule against that — and otherwise allowing close contact.