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Ron DeSantis to bars and restaurants: Follow social distancing guidelines, or else

Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears threatened to pull the liquor licenses of "flagrant" violators of social distancing guidelines.

Florida bars and restaurants that violate the state’s social distancing guidelines now risk losing their liquor licenses.

That’s according to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who made the announcement at a news conference Tuesday in Orlando.

“If you go in and it’s just like mayhem, like Dance Party USA and it’s packed to the rafters, that’s just cut and dry. That’s not just an innocent mistake,” DeSantis said.

The governor said businesses that are clearly out of compliance with state rules can count on a visit from Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears, whom DeSantis called “the grim reaper for business licenses.”

“There’s not going to be any tolerance for it,” said DeSantis, who has ordered restaurants and bars to operate at 50 percent capacity indoors.

Beshears’ office made an example this week out of The Knight’s Pub in Orlando, suspending the establishment’s liquor license. In Florida, which has a quota on the number of licenses it hands out, that’s a stiff punishment.

The office justified the suspension by noting The Knight’s Pub had repeatedly flouted social distancing rules, packing the bar with patrons. More than 40 employees and patrons tested positive for coronavirus after frequenting the bar, according to local media reports.

In a statement, Michael D’Esposito, owner of The Knight’s Pub, blasted the state’s move.

“Yesterday’s false accounts of irresponsible business practices and the circulation of photos from 2019 to mislead the public in the time of COVID-19 are reckless and dangerous,” D’Esposito said, noting his establishment was open for just three days earlier this month. “Despite our limited reopening that was encouraged by our political leaders, our establishment is now being used as the scapegoat for all COVID-19 cases in the surrounding Orlando area.”

Before this week, the state had been issuing only warnings to businesses. Beshears said since June 5, when Florida allowed bars to reopen, his department has received 106 complaints.

A reporter at the news conference noted that one of those complaints was about The Knight’s Pub.

“Hopefully he won’t need to be doing a lot of suspensions,” DeSantis said of Beshears. “But I reckon he’s probably going to need to do a few more to really send a message.”

At the news conference, DeSantis continued to defend the state’s reopening strategy on a day when Florida reported 3,289 new infections and 67 new deaths. The governor contended the state’s recent surge in cases can largely be attributed to more infections among a younger population that’s less at risk for serious health outcomes.

“What we’ve seen, particularly over the last week, is a real explosion in new cases amongst our younger demographics,” the governor said. Later, he added, “I’m less concerned about the number of cases.”

DeSantis said he’s more concerned about the population that’s at the highest risk for death or serious illness from the coronavirus. That’s why starting Friday, staff at all long-term care facilities must be tested every two weeks, he said.

By and large, older Floridians have been more careful than younger ones when venturing in public, DeSantis noted.

In their own news conference Tuesday, Florida Senate Democrats accused DeSantis of leaving the hard decisions to local government and shifting blame to others.

Sen. Lori Berman of West Palm Beach said that while Orlando doctors attributed the spike in new COVID-19 cases to younger Floridians, “It’s really disappointing that our leadership isn’t giving us a plan of action. When the numbers are rising, and it’s really scary for the average Floridian to think about the fact that the cases are going up, your risk of exposure is going up, your risk of sick is increasing, and yet there’s no real concrete plan that we’re going to deal with it.”

Dr. George Ralls, the medical chief quality officer at Orlando Health, who joined the governor at the news conference, said that the surge in recent cases can be attributed more to changes in social behavior than reopened businesses.

“The community needs to think about where the risk really is, and it’s where we let our guard down,” Ralls said. “You can maintain a safe environment and open a business. Where we’re letting our guard down are the pool parties, the social gatherings, the places where you’re not thinking about transmission.”

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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