TALLAHASSEE — Amanda Cachaldora and her family were sitting at a corner booth inside a Flanigan’s restaurant in Hialeah Saturday afternoon when they noticed the indoor dining space started to fill up fast.
Uncomfortable, Cachaldora watched as more and more customers were seated at tables that minutes earlier had been blocked off with a “reserved” sign to keep people at a distance because of the coronavirus.
The family decided to move outside, and requested to speak to a manager.
"I said, ‘I’m sorry, but what’s happening here?’ " Cachaldora recalled. “He told me DeSantis said there were no more restrictions and that they could seat people wherever they wanted. He was very brusque about it.”
A day earlier, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a sweeping order that lifted all state restrictions on businesses, including provisions that let some restaurants have full dining rooms again. It also gutted the ability of municipalities to penalize people who violate social-distancing guidelines.
The order was a continuation of DeSantis' long-running push to reopen the state’s pandemic-battered economy, but the directive also unleashed confusion. Local officials and business owners said they were caught off guard by the order over the weekend and on Tuesday some were still figuring out what rules they needed to put in place and follow.
Now, DeSantis' order appears to be creating a rift through Florida’s hospitality industry, which is one of the state’s biggest economic engines. Some restaurant and bar owners are eager to press forward, while others remain more cautious about operating at full capacity amid a pandemic.
“There was and still is a tremendous amount of confusion,” said Jimmy Flanigan, the CEO and president of the South Florida-based chain of 24 sports bar style restaurants, which he said have been instructed to remain operating at 50 percent capacity.
“I will personally follow up,” he added.
State steps back, so owners have to step up
Halsey Beshears, the DeSantis administration official charged with regulating state bars and restaurants, said he “absolutely” thinks the state will see a split in business models as owners adjust to operating amid a pandemic.
“I think you’re going to see people that start going, ‘Hey, I’m not comfortable with this as an owner. I don’t want the liability or I’m just not happy with it.’ And I think you’ll have others that want to open up, blowing it wide open,” Beshears said.
The governor’s order means state officials will no longer enforce social-distancing violations at businesses, or threaten to revoke liquor licenses for violating those rules like the state did this summer. Beshears said enforcing capacity levels and guidelines now falls on local government and business owners.
“It’s going to be on them, the state is getting out of the way,” he said, while admitting he is concerned about businesses who fail to not operate in a safe way. Beshears is encouraging businesses to be “smart” and operate safely.
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Health experts say the state’s lifting regulations on businesses creates a vacuum of leadership at a dangerous time.
A lack of clear direction
Messaging is everything during a pandemic, said Melissa Levine, the director of the Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health. It’s nearly impossible for Floridians to understand the risks associated with a pandemic without clear and consistent communication from the government, she said.
“I think the challenge is that it’s not clear what direction we’re supposed to be going now and it’s been left to all of us individually,” Levine said. “That’s not a good thing in a pandemic.”
Among those who struggled with the direction given by DeSantis: the officials tasked with setting and enforcing local rules.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Tuesday he had not yet talked to the governor about the order, which upended some of the strictest rules in the county hardest-hit by COVID-19.
DeSantis' office did not comment when asked how it warned local officials that the state would be lifting all regulations on Friday. Beshears, the head of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, said he was made aware of the order prior to its roll out but declined to comment on how locals were prepared for the looming changes.
Jay Wolfson, a distinguished service professor of public health at USF, said if Florida sees a resurgence in bad coronavirus outcomes as a result of these openings, it likely won’t be felt for several weeks. It takes time for the disease to spread from younger people — who are more active and thus more likely to be exposed outside their homes — to the more vulnerable elderly population, Wolfson said.
That’s largely the pattern the state saw over the summer. When cases began to surge in June, DeSantis initially downplayed the phenomenon, noting that younger people are less likely to die or require hospitalization from the disease. But as the weeks wore on, the median age of new reported cases climbed, along with hospitalizations and deaths. Average daily deaths peaked in early August.
“Old people don’t suddenly get COVID,” Wolfson said.
Wary of a COVID surge
DeSantis has long argued that business reopenings had little to do with that summer surge. Other Sunbelt states saw the same pattern of new cases, DeSantis has noted, and Florida withstood the worst of the outbreak without a new round of business closures.
However, a September study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that, of 314 adults who were surveyed, those who had contracted the virus were twice as likely to have recently eaten at a restaurant than those who were negative for COVID-19.
DeSantis cast doubts about that study on Tuesday, noting its small sample size and suggesting the participants could just have easily contracted the virus at home. The governor added that the state’s contact tracing efforts have found relatively few cases that originated at a restaurant.
However, despite months of repeated requests, state officials have not released contact tracing data to reporters that could vindicate the governor’s claim.
The state has also reported far fewer coronavirus tests in recent weeks. Wolfson said that means officials have less data at their disposal to monitor future outbreaks.
DeSantis, while announcing Tuesday that the state would receive more than 6 million new rapid tests from the federal government, said the state is testing less because there’s been less demand recently.
After DeSantis loosened restrictions on businesses, images and videos of packed bars and restaurants in various parts of the state and cops breaking up huge parties in college towns surfaced over the weekend.
“The state of Florida is probably the most open big state in the country,” the governor bragged on Friday as he rolled out the order. He added, “we’re not closing anything going forward.”
Carol Dover, the president and chief executive officer of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said bar and restaurant owners were “thrilled” with the governor’s order because it gives them the choice to operate again and give employees their jobs back.
“When you are at 50 percent capacity, it is not a way to make a living or keep employees employed,” Dover said. “Now, businesses can make a decision. There is a choice and they will listen to the customer.”
Beshears said many restaurants in the state have mask mandates and policies in place that will allow them to operate safely. They also have the power to refuse customer service to anyone who doesn’t abide by those rules, he said.
“To me that is the way to do it, let the businesses decide that. And the people who are vulnerable to COVID-19, then they need to be careful, they need to stay at home, they need to wear a mask, and you know, they don’t need to be in a bar if they don’t want to go to a bar,” Beshears said.
Dover agrees that that is the best strategy moving forward in the pandemic.
“One thing we know is true about the free-enterprise system is that you don’t have to go in if you don’t want to go in,” Dover said.
Cachaldora is one of those customers who says she will scrutinize restaurant policies moving forward, and will likely avoid indoor dining after her experience at Flanigan’s on Saturday.
“In the future, if there are restaurants that are not abiding by proper social-distancing rules and capacity levels that I think are appropriate, we’ll be eating outside only,” she said.