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Florida will start lifting stay-at-home orders on Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis says

In his push to convince the public that it’s safe to reopen the state, DeSantis convened a task force of business leaders and state and local politicians to come up with recommendations on how to reopen safely.

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that Florida will start lifting stay-at-home orders starting Monday, with restaurants and shops being allowed to reopen with limited capacity.

In the first phase of a three-phase plan, DeSantis said Florida will closely follow guidelines from the White House. The order does not apply to Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, where the pandemic has hit hardest, however. He said he will consider issuing an order for those counties soon.

“I erred on on the side of taking measured steps, even baby steps, to start on the road of a brighter day,” DeSantis said.

Still, starting Monday, the rest of Florida will be allowed to lift some restrictions while keeping others in place, including:

  • Keeping schools closed
  • Allowing restaurants to open with 25 percent capacity indoors and outdoor seating with six-foot social distancing and parties restricted to 10 or fewer
  • Allowing retail stores, museums and libraries to open at 25 percent indoor capacity
  • Keeping bars, gyms, spas and salons closed
  • Allowing elective surgeries to resume
  • Keeping visitors away from nursing homes and long-term care facilities
  • Keeping social distancing, including avoiding crowds of 10 or more, in place

Although public life will start to reopen, DeSantis said people are still being encouraged to stay home and obey six-foot social distancing rules while in public.

In a plan he’s labeling “Safe. Smart. Step-by-Step," DeSantis said the state will take a “very slow and methodical approach” to reopening in order to convince the public it’s safe. Like other Republican governors in southeastern states, however, DeSantis is moving to reopen despite testing that is not near the recommended capacity recommended by many public health experts.

DeSantis pointed to declining numbers of hospitalizations from influenza-like illnesses — a key indicator of COVID-19 cases, deaths and other metrics that show the state is ready to lift its stay-at-home order, which was issued April 1.

He said he ran Florida’s plan by officials in President Donald Trump’s administration, including Dr. Deborah Birx, who is coordinating the White House response to the pandemic.

“They agree Florida is ready to go to Phase One,” he said.

The governor’s executive order includes fines for businesses that exceed the limit on 25 percent capacity, imposing a second-degree misdemeanor with a fine up to $500 and some regulated businesses may face enforcement action for violating the restrictions.

For the last two weeks, DeSantis has been touting the state’s relatively low numbers of cases and criticizing experts and the news media for citing projections showing the state could have faced a much worse pandemic.

Related: Florida medical examiners were releasing coronavirus death data. The state made them stop.

On Wednesday, DeSantis spent the first 20 minutes of his hour-long news conference defending his handling of the crisis.

Although he announced the guidelines during Wednesday’s news conference, his order was released hours later. Without any specifics, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman declined to respond to DeSantis announcement.

“Mayor Kriseman has not yet read an order related to the governor’s remarks today,” Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby wrote in a text message. “The order should address preemption issues and will likely contain other nuances that will factor into our decisions here in Pinellas and St. Pete.”

Other political leaders gave general endorsements of the governor’s plan, which is not as aggressive as other states led by Republican governors, such as Georgia, Arkansas and Oklahoma. DeSantis’ plan also deviates from the White House’s guidelines, which recommended reopening movie theaters. DeSantis says theaters should remain closed.

“Indoor environments are more likely for transmission,”DeSantis said, referring to his delay in opening movie theaters.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor told CNN host Wolf Blitzer that she believed her city can safely follow the plan outlined by DeSantis. The city has enough testing, contact tracing and surveillance in place to monitor how the reopening proceeds, she said.

“I think the best aspect of this opening up is that it’s a very, very slow roll,” said Castor.

Related: Florida will reopen in ‘baby steps,' Ron DeSantis says in Tampa

Les Miller, chairman of the Hillsborough County Commission and chair of the county’s Emergency Policy Group agreed that the governor was taking it slow.

“I wish he would have emphasized wearing a mask a little more," Miller said.

The state’s top-elected Democrat, Agriculture Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried, said she agreed with the governor’s plan.

“I am encouraged by this cautious approach, and I agree that Florida’s re-opening must be measured, in phases, and based on science and data,” Fried said in a statement. “I remain concerned about key numbers in the weeks ahead, that testing must be increased and that all data must be accurately reported, both cases and deaths.”

In his push to convince the public that it’s safe to reopen the state, DeSantis convened a task force of business leaders and state and local politicians last week to come up with recommendations on how to reopen.

The task force has finished its report, but it won’t be released until Wednesday night or Thursday morning, DeSantis said.

Related: DeSantis says Florida has enough testing. Healthcare experts disagree.

But the guidelines DeSantis announced Wednesday are likely to fall far short of what many of the task force members wanted.

Those business owners made clear they wanted DeSantis to issue specific guidelines about how they should reopen: Should customers wear masks? Should employees? Should paid leave be offered to sick employees? And what precautions should hospitals take before performing elective surgeries?

Mise en Place proprietor Maryann Ferenc called Wednesday's news “rushed” and said she was waiting for a more detailed description of rules from local government before reopening her restaurant.

“Give us more notice — it’s just more chaos, and we don’t need more,” Ferenc said. “Right now we are going to do nothing. We are going to do what we had already planned. I’m glad it’s not more. I’m glad it’s just this much. I consider this a dual crisis — its a health crisis first and a business crisis second, and that’s the filter with which I make my decisions.”

Related: Hourly employees need paid sick leave, restaurant chain CEO tells Florida task force

Others wondered about what they viewed as an arbitrariness to the reopening plan.

“Why can’t we be open but then you can sit in a swimming pool or go in the packed Walmart?” said spa owner Bianca Cysper.

Cysper had to close her St. Petersburg Day Spa, Imagine You New, and hoped she’d be able to accept appointments again soon. Some of her clients have been seeing her regularly over the last 15 years. But spas are not among those that can reopen, according to DeSantis.

“I don’t want to hurt my clients,” Cysper said. “I love them.”

One of the task force members, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, the incoming Senate president, gave the Times/Herald a preview on Monday of what Floridians can expect over the next months.

Restaurants will open with six-feet of space between patrons. He also expects the public to wear masks in restaurants until they are ready to eat. Airports will have to screen passengers before they get on planes and, in a few months, conduct rapid COVID-19 tests before every flight. Hospitals will screen patients 48 hours before they arrive for surgeries or other medical procedures.

The governor’s order provides no guidance for elective surgeries. Some hospitals said they were prepared to test all patients for COVID-19 before every surgery, but not all hospitals and outpatient surgery centers have access to in-house testing labs.

Still, hospitals, in particular, seemed supportive of DeSantis’ plans to soon allow elective procedures.

“We have plans in place and are ready to safely resume elective surgery procedures to deliver the highest-quality care for our patients,' said Dr. Nishant Anand, chief medical officer for BayCare Health System.

Although Florida has significantly increased its testing capability in the last two weeks, the capacity is far short of what public health experts say is needed to safely reopen the state.

Florida needs to test at least 150 people for every 100,000 residents every day —that’s about 33,000 people every day, more than double the current rate, said Dr. Charles Lockwood, the dean of University of South Florida’s College of Medicine at a news conference with DeSantis at Tampa General Hospital on Monday.

DeSantis said Wednesday that Florida will be able to conduct 30,000 to 40,000 tests a day during the first phase of the reopening, but he didn’t say how the state would be able to perform that many so quickly. Earlier this week, DeSantis promised to be able to conduct 18,000 tests a day at state labs by the end of May. Currently, the state is conducting about 9,000 per day.

Hospitals and nursing homes throughout the state continue to face shortages of supplies and testing kits. And both the Florida Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advance guidelines that don’t allow everyone who wants a test to get one.

DeSantis said Wednesday that Floridians should not be alarmed when they see a rise in COVID-19 cases in the next few months. He said cases will rise as testing rises, and he predicted the state could see more than 2,000 positive cases per day in the future, a figure the state has not yet seen.

“We are trying to build a foundation for the future of the State of Florida,” DeSantis said. “I’m confident this will be a good roadmap.”

Times staff writers Allison Ross, Helen Freund, Charlie Frago, Josh Solomon, Sara DiNatale and C.T. Bowen contributed to this report.

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