DeSantis declares Florida open, reopens restaurants but leaves room for local limits

Gov. Ron DeSantis, during a news conference in St. Petersburg on Sept. 25, 2020, declares Florida reopened but will let some local limits apply. Source: Screenshot

Florida restaurants may resume normal operations immediately, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Friday, declaring the state is controlling coronavirus well enough to move to the final stage of his reopening plan.

However, some locally ordered limits on their operations still apply, the governor said.

“There will not be limitations from the state of Florida,” DeSantis said.

“They can operate at a minimum of 50 percent regardless of local rule, and then if a local restricts between 50 and 100 [percent of occupancy], they’ve got to provide that justification and they’ve got to identify what the costs involved with doing that are.”

Local governments may continue to limit bars and pubs but not lower than 50 percent capacity, DeSantis said.

“We need everybody to get back to work,” DeSantis said. “They have a right to operate.”

Without using the word “masks,” the order may undermine the enforceability of local mask-wearing ordinances because it suspends “the collection of COVID-19 fines and penalties associated with COVID-19 enforced upon individuals.”

DeSantis announced the new order at a noon press conference in St. Petersburg. A reporter there called out a question about how it will affect “local mask mandates.”

DeSantis said, haltingly at first: “My, so I don’t, I don’t address it directly, actually, it’s a good point. Um, so what I did do in there, just as an act of executive grace, all outstanding fines and penalties that have been applied against individuals are suspended. I think we need to get away from trying to penalize people for social distancing and just work with people constructively. … All these fines we’re going to hold in abeyance and hope we can move forward in a way that’s more collaborative.”

Cities across Florida have adopted local mask-wearing mandates to various degrees: some regarding public activities indoors, such as dining, others for activities anywhere outside one’s home.

The new executive order, titled “Phase 3. Right to Work. Business Certainty. Suspension of Fines,” also says, “No COVID-19 emergency ordinance may prevent an individual from working or from operating a business.”

The governor said Florida’s infection, hospitalization, and death rates indicate the state is ready to reopen. The Florida Department of Health reported Friday that 695,887 people in Florida have contracted the virus at some point during the pandemic, including 2,851 new cases reported overnight, and 13,915 Florida residents have died of the disease, including 162 new deaths reported Friday.

The Florida Public Interest Research Group, which urged the governor to maintain restrictions until the sickness recedes further, quickly issued a statement objecting to the new order. FPIRG is a public-interest research and advocacy organization.

“Prohibiting restrictions, especially in high-risk settings for spreading the virus like indoor dining, will prolong economic damage and risk lives unnecessarily,” the statement says. “Instead of undermining the pandemic response efforts of local governments, Governor DeSantis should provide the resources necessary to ramp up testing so that we can return to some semblance of normalcy safely.”

The group pointed to a Sept. 11 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that says “locations that offer on-site eating and drinking options were associated with COVID-19 positivity.”

It continued: “Adults with positive SARS-CoV-2 [COVID-19] test results were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than were those with negative SARS-CoV-2 test results.”

Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, issued a statement of gratitude to the governor.

“I want to thank Governor DeSantis and [Business and Professional Regulation] Secretary Halsey Beshears for their support as we have navigated this unprecedented time and for allowing us the opportunity to get back to work,” Dover stated. She said an estimated 336,000 hospitality employees have lost their jobs during the crisis.

Reflecting some uncertainties about DeSantis’ order as described at the press conference, the FRLA statement said restaurants now may “operate at full capacity” but also said they “must be allowed to operate at least at 50% capacity, regardless of local rule.”