Ron DeSantis assures opening stadiums to fans is safe, even in Miami-Dade

DeSantis discussed a state order that preempts local rules on sporting events, therefore allowing Miami-Dade County, for example, to allow some fans to attend Miami Dolphins and University of Miami Hurricanes games this season.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen during a news conference Monday, Aug. 24, 2020 in Miami Gardens.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen during a news conference Monday, Aug. 24, 2020 in Miami Gardens. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published Aug. 24, 2020|Updated Aug. 26, 2020

MIAMI GARDENS — Gov. Ron DeSantis declared Miami-Dade County safe enough to partially fill stadiums for live sporting events as newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Florida hit the lowest single-day amount reported since June 14.

At Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Monday afternoon, DeSantis discussed a state order that preempts local rules on sporting events, therefore allowing Miami-Dade County to welcome some fans to attend Miami Dolphins and University of Miami Hurricanes games this season.

According to the Miami Dolphins, 13,000 fans — or 20 percent capacity — will be permitted to attend the Dolphin’s home opener against the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Hurricanes’ home opener against the University of Alabama at Birmingham next month. Season-ticket holders get first dibs, according to the Dolphins.

Yet it’s still unclear what other sports franchises were going to do. Other teams like the Dallas Cowboys and the Kansas City Chiefs are similarly allowing fans to attend games in a limited capacity. DeSantis said the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars are “working on their own plans.”

DeSantis’ announcement shed some light on how Tampa Bay area football teams could allow fans at their games. If the Dolphins’ experience is any indication, the Buccaneers and University of South Florida Bulls will have to get approval from the state — not local governments — if they plan to allow fans to attend games.

Bobby Silvest, a spokesman for the Tampa Sports Authority, the local agency which manages Raymond James Stadium, said his organization does not yet know what the capacity limits will be at Bucs or Bulls football games.

A spokesman for the Buccaneers did not offer comment Monday.

USF is expected to announce its seating capacity for this season’s games at Raymond James Stadium later in the week.

Elsewhere in the region, the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team has not approached St. Petersburg officials about allowing fans in their stadium, Mayor Rick Kriseman’s spokesman Ben Kirby said. However, the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer team has.

As of late Monday, DeSantis had not issued an executive order clarifying the state’s role in regulating sporting arena attendance. But Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez referenced such an order at Monday’s event, and DeSantis spokesman Fred Piccolo said the order was in the works.

Order or no, some Tampa Bay area officials acknowledge state officials have the power to allow fans at sporting events if they choose.

“The emergency powers of the state under a declared state of emergency are broad,” said Donald Crowell, the chief assistant attorney for Pinellas County. “The state is under a declared public health emergency from this pandemic and I will leave it to the state to opine on the breadth of their authority.”

DeSantis did not take questions from reporters on Monday.

Florida’s Department of Health on Monday confirmed 2,258 additional cases of COVID-19, bringing the state’s known total to 602,829. There were also 72 Florida deaths announced, bringing the death toll to 10,534.

Miami-Dade County, one of the hardest-hit areas in the country by the coronavirus, last began lifting COVID-19 restrictions in May and June. That was when the first surge in cases from the spring started letting up.

The reprieve didn’t last long. Mayor Carlos Gimenez used his emergency powers to close casinos and impose a 10 p.m. countywide curfew ahead of the July 4 holiday weekend. Later that month, the county began setting local records for hospitalized COVID patients.

As hospitalizations rose, Gimenez reimposed certain restrictions, including closing indoor restaurant dining rooms. However, COVID-19 statistics in the county have improved through August, with the daily rate of positive cases in the county dipping below 10 percent over the last three days for the first time since June.

Gimenez, a Republican, said DeSantis took his feedback into consideration as the state approved the Dolphins’ plan.

“I have no issues with this,” Gimenez said. “This is as safe an environment that I’ve ever seen.”

He likened eating and drinking maskless at the stadium to “eating at an outdoor restaurant.”

Yet gathering thousands of people inside an open-air stadium for an NFL football games in September in Miami Gardens could easily ignite an outbreak of COVID-19 if social distancing and other measures aren’t strictly observed and enforced, said Jason Salemi, an associate professor of epidemiology for the University of South Florida.

Given that part of the thrill of live sporting events is the interaction with other fans, Salemi said it may be difficult to ensure that people adhere to the measures that have been begun to show results with fewer cases and hospitalizations in Miami-Dade.

“When you get thousands and thousands of people together, if people don’t self-police on the mitigation activities and they don’t take this seriously, then obviously this could lead to a lot of cases that will spread back into our community,” Salemi said. “This has a way, if you have enough cases, that they will permeate throughout a population and they will get to people who are vulnerable. So there is danger if you don’t do this right, in terms of you could have high numbers of cases that emerge from an event like this.”

By allowing fans at games, the National Football league is setting itself up for a unique challenge. The NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball are all playing their seasons in special “bubbles” and without fans.

Coach Shane McDermott of the Buffalo Bills, Miami’s first home opponent, told the Times/Herald: “I think it’s honestly ridiculous that there will be, on the surface, what appears to be a playing field like that — inconsistently across the league with the different away stadiums.”

The Big Ten and Pac-12 college conferences have announced they will not play football — or any sports — this fall.

DeSantis, however has made clear that he thinks teams at all levels should play with as much community participation as possible.

“Having something to look forward to does give people a bit of hope,” DeSantis said.

Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks and McClatchy DC staff writer Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: The story has been clarified to reflect that the Tampa Bay Rowdies have reached out to St. Petersburg officials about allowing fans at their games.