Florida is open for business.
Gov. Ron DeSantis announced during a Sept. 25 news conference at a St. Petersburg hotel that he issued an executive order moving the state into phase 3 — the final step in the state’s pandemic reopening plan.
The move was effective immediately, lifting the 50% indoor seating capacity established during phase 1 and allowing bars and restaurants to open at full capacity unless otherwise limited by local governments.
However, the order prevents municipalities from limiting restaurants to less than 50% indoor seating capacity.
Furthermore, the executive order suspended the “collection of fines and penalties associated with COVID-19,” effectively knocking out the enforcement teeth of coronavirus-related municipal and county regulations by prohibiting fines for violations.
The order also includes a “right-to-work” provision that states “No COVID-19 emergency ordinance may prevent an individual from working or from operating a business.”
DeSantis also eliminated all state restrictions established in phases 1 and 2 that weren’t modified in phase 3, including social distancing requirements for public spaces.
The decision to enter phase 3 came during a period of relative success for the state, which has struggled to contain the virus’ spread.
The daily number of newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state has hovered around 3,000 since late August after a daily peak at 15,300 on July 12.
On April 1, the day the state registered 1,032 newly confirmed cases, DeSantis issued a 30-day safer-at-home order and restricted nonessential activities.
On Sept. 25, as the state entered phase 3, 2,847 people tested positive and the death toll passed 14,000.
Reactions to phase 3
DeSantis’ announcement Sept. 25 received mixed responses.
John Horne, owner of four Anna Maria Oyster Bar restaurants, told The Islander Sept. 25 that he was excited for the opportunity to fully reopen, but would slowly transition to that point.
“I don’t see us opening any more than 60% of our indoor seating capacity over the first week or two,” Horne said. “Then we’ll figure out where to go on a week-by-week basis.”
Horne said his restaurants would maintain many safety measures from phases 1 and 2, including sanitizing menus and table settings after each use and encouraging outdoor seating.
He said that while face masks are no longer required within his businesses, staff will continue to wear face coverings and encourage customers to do so.
“We’re not going to make a lot of big changes,” Horne said. “We want our guests to still feel comfortable and confident that they are coming into a healthy, safe environment.”
Overall, Horne was supportive of entering phase 3.
“I think it’s absolutely the right time to move into phase 3,” Horne said. “I think it’s time to put the decision in everyone’s hands instead of just the government’s. …It’s time to let people get their businesses back in order.”
Sean Murphy, who owns two restaurants and a cocktail bar in Holmes Beach, criticized DeSantis for neutering the mask mandate for Holmes Beach and removing social distancing requirements while increasing indoor restaurant capacity.
“DeSantis is an idiot,” Murphy wrote in a Sept. 26 email to The Islander. “We will ignore the seating statements made by the bonehead in the governor’s office.”
Murphy has limited his businesses to carryout service at one location — Eat Here restaurant — since April to limit the virus’ spread. He announced plans Sept. 25 to reopen in October.
The Doctor’s Office, 5312 Holmes Blvd., Holmes Beach, will reopen first with reservations starting at 5 p.m. Oct. 8. The bar will begin taking reservations at noon Tuesday, Oct. 6.
Murphy announced the Beach Bistro, 6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, will reopen for reservations with limited beachfront and indoor seating Oct. 22 with a new HVAC system to sanitize the flagship restaurant’s air using ultraviolet light.
Both businesses will operate 5-9 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays until November, when he plans to resume seven-day-a-week service.
Murphy said that in addition to maintaining a lower capacity and socially distanced seating, employees and customers must wear face masks inside.
“Masks are an essential baseline,” Murphy said. “To not wear masks in public, around other people, is reckless and a danger to everyone.”
The state rules allow a business to refuse service to people who fail to comply with its face mask policy.
Holmes Beach Mayor Judy Titsworth said Sept. 25 that she isn’t concerned with restaurants reopening to full seating capacity but voiced concern with the suspension of fines for coronavirus-related municipal regulations.
“My biggest fear is this is going to make people stop shopping. The mask mandates and social distancing requirements allowed people to feel safe enough to go back out shopping,” Titsworth said, adding that she feels people are trying to help the economy. “I’m concerned it could hurt it.”
Titsworth credited local mask mandates and social distancing requirements for improvements in containing the coronavirus.
She said the state should allow local governments to continue enforcing municipal mandates instead of encouraging noncompliance.
“We’re still so far away from a vaccine. Why are we letting up now?” Titsworth said. “We finally got our numbers to turn, and now I’m afraid we might go backward.”