Addressing reporters at a press conference in St. Petersburg on Friday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced an executive order allowing bars and restaurants in the state to open at full capacity.
“We are today moving into what we initially called Phase 3,” DeSantis said. “And what that’ll mean for the restaurants is there will not be limitations from the state of Florida.”
DeSantis said the order will allow workers of all industries in the state an opportunity to continue pursuing their careers during the coronavirus pandemic. He included provisions that will limit the number of restrictions local governments can place on businesses.
“We’re also saying in the state of Florida everybody has a right to work,” DeSantis added.
The order removes state-level restrictions that forced restaurants and bars to limit capacity seating to 75% and establishes, as a rule, that no local government can make a law restricting capacity seating below 50%.
It is not clear why the governor chose this time to remove the restrictions which were removed in May, but then had to be reinstated in June due to the severe outbreak in the state. Overall, coronavirus positive testing rates have dropped below 5%, a level some public health officials have suggested was appropriate for opening schools, but not bars.
Florida has been very successful in controlling the massive COVID-19 outbreak that occurred there this summer. The state’s overall infection rate has dropped, although not to the levels observed before the increase started last June.
Figure legend. The large panel shows the rate of change of new COVID-19 cases in Florida over the past 7 days, while the smaller top panel shows the cases per capita, which remain high in the Florida pan handle and Miami county. The lower small panel shows that overall cases were mainly located in southern Florida.
Even though Gov. DeSantis called for restaurants to reopen at full capacity across Florida, leaders in counties in South Florida said they will keep restaurants open at half-capacity.
South Florida accounts for about 42% of Florida’s total coronavirus cases, despite being home to only 29% of the state’s population. But recently, South Florida’s infection rate has dropped to about the same levels as Florida’s other highly populated areas.
Broward County’s daily COVID-19 test positivity rate was reported at 3.02% on Friday, with 196 new cases, while Hillsborough County had a 4.31% positivity for new infections and 150 new cases. Miami-Dade County, though, still had a higher than recommended testing rate of 5.4% positivity and 510 new cases Friday. Elsewhere, Orange County reported a 4.22% positivity rate and 172 new cases, while Palm Beach County was lower — with a 2.92% positivity rate and 161 new cases.
The governor’s announcement also limits enforcement and fines for not wearing masks. For example, although Palm Beach County’s mask mandate is still in effect, the county won’t be able to enforce fines against people who fail to comply. The county, however, still can levy punishment against businesses that fail to enforce the mask mandate in their establishments.
Only time will tell if this is the right decision. It is being hailed by some as a way to improve Florida’s economy. In contrast, closing bars has been an effective means of controlling COVID-19. With many people soon heading to Florida for the winter, and the Super Bowl in Tampa this February, it will be interesting to see what happens.