DeSantis lifts statewide restrictions on bars and restaurants as Florida moves to phase 3

The governor said local governments will have to justify any restrictions on capacity.
Governor Ron DeSantis shows a card stating COVID-19 survival rates by age group as he announces phase three openings at press conference in St. Petersburg on Friday, September 25.
Governor Ron DeSantis shows a card stating COVID-19 survival rates by age group as he announces phase three openings at press conference in St. Petersburg on Friday, September 25. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Sept. 25, 2020|Updated Sept. 26, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday signed an executive order lifting all remaining statewide coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses in Florida, including bars and restaurants.

The executive order rolls back nearly every measure in Florida put in place to combat the spread of the coronavirus and puts the state into the last phase of its reopening plan.

The order immediately allows all businesses that had been shut down due to the pandemic to reopen, and it guarantees restaurants can operate at a minimum of 50 percent capacity.

Under the order, announced Friday in a news conference in downtown St. Petersburg, municipalities must justify any local restrictions of restaurant capacity between 50 and 100 percent. It does not force municipalities to increase capacity in bars beyond 50 percent, DeSantis said, though cities and counties are free to do so.

“(Restaurants) have worked as hard as anybody to create safe environments," said DeSantis, who spoke to reporters Friday afternoon from an empty ballroom inside the Birchwood restaurant on Beach Drive NE. "The idea that government dictating this is better than them making decisions so that their customers have confidence, I think is misplaced.”

DeSantis said the order allows local governments to have some “reasonable regulations” but said it’s time for businesses to be reopening.

“You can’t say ‘no’ after six months and just have people twisting in the wind,” he said.

Related: Gov. DeSantis condemns St. Pete protesters; Mayor Kriseman pushes back

DeSantis made the announcement surrounded by local business owners and other public officials, who cheered the news.

“Florida’s hospitality industry has been decimated by COVID-19,” Carol Dover, president and chief executive officer of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said later in a statement. “We look forward to welcoming back our wonderful guests and to reopening the Sunshine State.”

But some other restaurant owners are circumspect about the idea of adding more tables following the order.

“The most important thing for us is for our staff and our guests to continue to feel safe," said restaurateur Richard Gonzmart, whose Columbia Restaurant Group owns The Columbia, Ulele and Goody Goody. "We are evaluating each of our restaurants and will add some tables and seats, but not anything close to 100 percent capacity at this time.”

Tom DeGeorge, owner of Ybor City’s Crowbar, also said he’d reopen at his own pace.

“I certainly am not going to sit there and open my doors 1,000 percent,” DeGeorge said. “I’m probably going to do exactly what I was going to do when I felt comfortable doing it and not worry about the government and what they told me.”

Jeff Gigante, co-founder of Forbici Modern Italian in Hyde Park Village, said the restaurant plans to maintain its protocols, meaning 50 percent capacity inside and full capacity outside. But his restaurant has a large interior space, so he understands why other establishments might want to increase their capacity.

“Smaller places that choose to bump it up to 75 or 100 percent will get no judgment from us,” he said. “I understand how hard this has been even to break even and not lose money.”

Friday’s order also suspends fees and penalties for individuals who violate COVID-19 restrictions, removing the enforcement mechanisms in Pinellas and Hillsborough ordinances that require masks when inside public areas. The order did not address fines incurred by businesses.

“I think we need to get away from trying to penalize people for not social distancing and work with people constructively,” DeSantis said.

The Republican governor had been hinting for weeks that the state would move into phase three of the reopening process, and earlier this week he boasted that Florida was one of the most open states in the nation.

“We opened at the height of the infection when everybody was saying, ‘Shut down the state,’” the governor said Thursday. “Well, we didn’t do that.”

The number of new cases of the coronavirus has fallen in recent months in the state, although there’s been a slight increase this month. Hospitalizations from COVID-19, too, had been falling sharply but have flattened out this month.

DeSantis said the state is prepared — with personal protection equipment, tests and excess hospital capacity — if cases spike following the reopening, though he said there would not be more closures. He said the state has seen an uptick in economic activity in the last two months but didn’t see any major accompanying surge in cases.

Related: Florida coronavirus cases tick up in September, stalling progress

According to the guidelines crafted by DeSantis' task force for the state’s reopening in late April, phase three allows gyms, large venues, movie theaters, arcades, casinos and playhouses to operate at full capacity with “limited social distancing protocols.”

Large sporting venues are asked to consider reducing capacity with limited distancing protocols and theme parks are allowed to return to “normal operations.”

The governor said he would like to see concerts come to Florida and fans at sporting events.

“We expect to do a full Super Bowl,” he said, “and we’re going to show that we’re going to be able to do that.”

Local leaders on both sides of the bay reacted to the transition to phase three with skepticism.

Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers said county officials were “expecting a gradual move towards a loosening of restrictions and certainly hope and pray that this time is different than back in early June when we moved to Phase 2.”

Florida experienced its worst stretch of coronavirus cases in July, when daily case counts topped 15,000 and positivity rates approached 20 percent, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Fellow Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch voiced a similar concern: “We experienced the spike after the governor’s previous ‘mission accomplished’ declaration,” he said.

Related: Mike Pence in Orlando: Florida 'leading the way to open up America again’

Hillsborough Commission Chairman Les Miller Jr. questioned the timing of the announcement.

“I don’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing except for he wants to open up the economy before the elections,” Miller said of DeSantis.

Miller pointed at recommendations that communities have a positive coronavirus rate of 5 percent or below for 14 days before loosening social distancing restrictions.

Florida’s seven-day average positivity rate is 11 percent, according to Hopkins data. The Florida Department of Health, which calculates positivity differently, by counting negative retests but not positive retests, pegged the rate at the 5 percent mark.

Spokespeople for Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said the leaders were reviewing the order.

Related: Florida passes 14,000 coronavirus deaths mark Friday

DeSantis warned that reopening the economy doesn’t mean the virus disappears.

“So people should just understand it is something we are going to have to deal with,” he said. “But doing that from a fetal position, where society flounders, people are out of work, kids aren’t in school, that is not going to work.”

Times staff writers C.T. Bowen, Charlie Frago, Tracey McManus, Jack Evans, Natalie Weber and Jamal Thalji contributed to this report.