Gov. DeSantis plans to loosen COVID restrictions: Let restaurants fully open

Briarpatch restaurant in Winter Park, Florida as photographed in December 2019. Credit: U+1F360 via Wikimedia Commons

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday that he plans to allow restaurant owners to reopen to the degree they’re “comfortable,” meaning they’ll be able to exceed the 50 percent capacity requirement that’s been in place for several months.

“I don’t think that the closure of restaurants has proven to be effective. I get how you could potentially have spread there,” the governor told reporters during a roundtable discussion about COVID-19. “But you can’t have these businesses dying.”

The move is “evidence-based,” DeSantis said.

“Miami-Dade closed them at the height when everyone was really panicking at the beginning of July. Broward didn’t. Broward kept indoor dining. I challenge you to show me a difference in those epidemic curves,” he said.

DeSantis suggested the relaxation also would apply to bars. He noted that many continued to operate by boosting their food service.

Both sorts of business now operate at 50 percent capacity.

DeSantis did not say when he would act and whether that might involve an executive order. And it’s unclear if the owners would need to expand sanitation practices to ensure safety. Also unclear is whether workers will want to return to their restaurants and bars during the continued pandemic.

Data released Thursday by the Florida Department of Health reflected 693,040 cases of COVID infections among Florida residents and 13,795 deaths. However, the rate of positive testing results has been below 10 percent for 42 days, the agency said.

The governor took note of the opening of public schools and universities and said theme parks including Walt Disney World have been operating without notable spread of COVID. Brick-and-mortar instruction will soon be expanded into Miami-Dade and Broward counties, two of the hardest hit by COVID.

“We work great with locals. We understand different problems and we’ve given them a lot of latitude to do things that I personally wouldn’t have done,” DeSantis said.

“At the same time, everyone in Florida has a right to work. Everyone in Florida has a right to operate a business. Now, there can be reasonable regulations on that on a local level, but to say no at this point from a local perspective — you know, I don’t think that’s viable.”

The roundtable discussion featured Michael Levitt, a professor of structural biology at Stanford University; Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine and economics at Stanford; and Michael Killduff of Harvard Medical School.

They tended to agree with DeSantis’ moves toward eliminating restrictions on business operations and reopening public schools and universities.

That said, the Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit earlier this year against DeSantis and other officials, raising concerns about whether all public schools are safe. That lawsuit is continuing and involves other issues, such as whether local school boards, or state officials, have control over Florida’s public schools.

The governor never has required people to face masks against COVID transmission at the state level but has allowed local governments to do so.

The experts acknowledged that much of the medical field disagrees with them but emphasized that restricting people from going to work or school carries dangerous side effects in terms of social and economic despair. It also discourages people from seeking care for medical conditions other than COVID that might also kill them.

They said there’s extremely low risk of serious health damage from COVID for the student population and that younger kids seem unlikely to transmit virus to older people at higher risk. And they warned against ordering quarantines based on results of a common virus test that tends to deliver false positives based on dead virus.

Finally, they argued there’s no scientific evidence that the sort of cloth masks common today do much to restrict coronavirus transmission. Certainly, there’s no proof of efficacy among young school children, Bhattacharya said.

“What I have seen, also, is that these kinds of mandates cause a lot of social strife — people in conflict with one another — that, I think, as a public health matter you want to avoid if possible,” he said.

It might make sense to wear a mask in a crowded place, he said.

“Providing people the right data, the right information, communicating it clearly, not sowing panic — I think that’s the right public health policy here,” Bhattacharya said.