Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is lifting capacity restrictions on restaurants and other businesses, even as the state reports hundreds of coronavirus deaths a week.
Speaking Friday in St. Petersburg, the Republican governor also said he would make it harder for local governments to institute their own restrictions, which have gone above and beyond the state’s rules. And he banned pandemic-related fines, hitting the ability of cities and counties to enforce mask mandates.
The measures were part of DeSantis’s move into the so-called third phase of reopening. All restaurants can stay open at 50% of capacity, and it would be incumbent upon local governments to justify caps below 100%.
“The order that I’m signing today will guarantee restaurants operate, will not allow closures,” DeSantis said.
Florida’s COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have all dropped sharply from the surge that started in the Sun Belt in late June and persisted through August. But the state continues to report about 700 deaths a week, and there’s still much uncertainty about the consequences of schools reopening and other relaxed measures.
DeSantis said he was cognizant of the possibility of another wave, but said it was important to give businesses predictability, insisting the reopening wouldn’t go in reverse.
Throughout much of the pandemic, he has argued for a targeted approach to protect the highly vulnerable 70-and-older population. Still, the surge that hit in recent months showed that the insidious virus often starts spreading among the young and finds its way into older populations, including Florida’s large nursing home and assisted-living communities.
“We’re prepared if we see an increase,” DeSantis said. “We’re not closing anything going forward.”
DeSantis’s measures likely will have a significant impact in Miami-Dade, Florida’s most populous and hardest-hit county.
As of Friday morning, the Miami area’s bars and clubs were still shuttered and indoor dining remained at 50% of capacity. The county appeared to have little foreknowledge of the governor’s announcement.
In a statement late Friday about what he knew “so far,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez said that although the county must now let all businesses reopen, it retains the right to impose guidelines and protocols. He didn’t give specifics.
He confirmed that Miami-Dade could no longer issue civil citations for non-compliance with its mask mandate. DeSantis himself never ordered masks statewide. Gimenez said his staff was seeking more information on the enforceability of mask rules inside businesses.
Earlier, around the time DeSantis was speaking, Gimenez tweeted to note that the county’s positivity rate for new cases had “inched slightly” up to 5.4%. Until Monday, the measure had made an 11-day run under 5%. It has now surpassed that threshold in three of the past four days.
“We can’t let our guard down now that more of us are out in public,” said Gimenez, who is running for Congress as a Republican against Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.
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