Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has lifted state restrictions on restaurant operating capacity effective immediately.
At a press conference in downtown St. Petersburg Friday, DeSantis said he would sign an executive order that would remove any state limitations on restaurant capacity.
“There have been some local closures and other restrictions, so the order I’ll be signing today will not allow closures. They can operate at a minimum of 50 percent regardless of local rule, and if the local restrictions are between 50 and 100 [percent], they’ve got to provide the justification and they have to identify the costs involved,” DeSantis said.
The new executive order would move Florida into “Phase 3” of the governor’s reopening plan. Under Phase 2, launched in early June, restaurants were allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity.
The restrictions were put in place to control the spread of Covid-19 and ensure there was adequate hospital capacity to treat people who got sick. The pandemic peaked in early July in Florida, DeSantis said, and since then Covid-positive hospitalizations are down 70 percent, even though schools and theme parks have opened.
“The percentage of tests that come in positive in Pinellas County has been below 4 percent for two weeks,” DeSantis said. “Hospitalizations in Pinellas County have decreased 79 percent since the July peak and daily admissions to the hospitals in Pinellas has declined by 82 percent since the peak. Individuals showing up at the ER with Covid-like symptoms have decreased by more than 80 percent since the first week of July.”
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he was waiting for more details.
Thank you to @GovRonDeSantis highlighting Pinellas County’s progress on COVID-19 (We are now at 2.7% positivity / rolling two week average!). As Floridians are suffering, COVID is exactly what they need him to focus on. I look forward to seeing the details of his COVID order.
— Rick Kriseman (@Kriseman) September 25, 2020
The news was welcomed by the Florida Restaurant Association, which said the industry has been “decimated” by Covid-19 and that more than 336,000 restaurants employees lost work statewide.
“Today is a big step on the road to recovery,” said J.T. Corrales, director of business development for Crabby Bill’s, based in Indian Rocks Beach and with multiple other locations. “We employed almost 500 people pre-pandemic. It’s been a long road, but we’re working hard to get back on and this gives us a real fighting chance.”
Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, also spoke at the press conference, praising DeSantis for his “measured approach.”
“Our August revenues were $177 million over post-pandemic estimates. We already are on the path to recovery and what the governor is doing here today is going to continue that path and perhaps accelerate it,” Galvano said.
Bars, which were allowed to open Sept. 14 at 50 percent capacity, remain at “status quo,” DeSantis said, although local jurisdictions can authorize higher capacities.
“We’re not telling you have to, but we’re not going to stand in the way of that. That will be a local decision,” DeSantis said.
The St. Pete Catalyst asked DeSantis if the executive order would address local ordinances requiring face masks. Both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have those ordinances in place.
“I don’t address it directly,” DeSantis said. “What I did as an act of executive grace, all outstanding fines and penalties that have been applied against individuals have been suspended. I think we need to get away from trying to penalize people for social distancing and just work with people constructively. To impose a penalty — some have a jail sentence attached – all these fines we’re going to hold in abeyance and hope we can move forward in a way that’s more collaborative.”
We’re waiting for Gov. Desantis’ order to be released, but it appears to have no impact on #Pinellas‘ mask ordinance. As to the severity of #COVID19, this @TB_Times screenshot is illustrative. 14,000 deaths doesn’t seem quite as benign as a 95% survival rate, IMO @PinellasCoNews pic.twitter.com/90vjkzyLiK
— Commissioner Ken Welch (@Kenwelch) September 25, 2020
The press conference was at The Birchwood Hotel, near the scene of a tense confrontation between Black Lives Matter protestors and restaurant patrons that has been widely circulated on social media.
“What we saw here in St. Petersburg the other night with mobs harassing innocent people who were just enjoying a meal at a restaurant is simply unacceptable,” DeSantis said. “Once we saw that we had state resources we were ready to marshal. We did not need to do that, fortunately, but it’s not a good look for the state.”
He said he did not see other images on social media showing the patrons making thumbs down and middle-finger gestures.
He advocated for a legislative proposal he unveiled earlier this week that would impose criminal penalties on protestors who become violent.
As DeSantis spoke Friday afternoon, protestors gathered in North Straub Park, just across Beach Drive, and could be heard throughout the press conference.