ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – While many Central Florida businesses are complying by social distancing guidelines and capacity limits designed to stop the spread of COVID-19, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said Thursday that not everyone is playing by the rules.
The mayor and Dr. Raul Pino from the Florida Department of Health in Orange County said they’ve recently been to local gyms after receiving complaints and what they found was alarming.
“We’re going to appeal to gym owners and managers that they must make some adjustments in what they’re doing because we have received reports that many of our gyms are not adhering to the social distancing guidelines, many of them are supposed to be operating at this point at 50% of their capacity but they’re at full capacity,” Demings said. “The gyms are crowded and in most cases, many of them are not wearing masks.”
Based on that, he said his office as well as the Florida Department of Health plan to work with state officials to increase inspections at potentially problematic locations.
“We’re going to use every tool that we can again to fight back against the virus in this community. My appeal, always, is to gain voluntary compliance before we start looking at penalizing people, invoking criminal sanctions, but we want compliance there,” Demings said.
Katie Cowan, the owner of Fit-2-Row Studio in Orlando, said she’s worked hard following the guidelines set forth in the governor’s executive order, including wiping down equipment and keeping hand sanitizer by each row machine.
“It’s not hard. It’s not a hard protocol -- clean,” Cowan said.
She said she’s upset that some gym owners are not taking this seriously.
“This is a place where people come to retreat to, to come in and relax and get that frustration out for the day,” she said. “I get it, but, they’re hurting me if they’re not following the protocol.”
Leaders did not say how many cases of COVID-19, if any, have been linked to local gyms. They also did not mention any specific businesses by name.
On Friday, a spokesperson from the Florida Department of Health said the agency has “had no reports of major outbreaks associated with gyms in Florida.”
Pino said gyms can potentially be risky, especially if they’re packed, because when people are working out they breath more heavily and they’re more likely to exhale respiratory droplets that could enter another person’s mouth or nose.
In fact, Pino said he thinks going to Walt Disney World, which is set to open to the public Saturday, or any other Central Florida theme park could be safer than going to a gym that is not following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards.
“I‘m less concerned about Disney for transmission as an open space where they’re going to enforce guidance than places even smaller than that like a gym where it’s an enclosed space where people are exercising and increasing their respiration rate,” Pino said.
Given the concerns, he pointed out that gyms or any other violators for that matter can be shut down, the same as what happened to one bar near the University of Central Florida last month.
First though, warnings will be issued.
“Then we, individually, will visit those places with our teams and after that if there is no compliance we will close them one by one,” Pino said.
He added that the guidelines are clear and business owners know the steps they should be taking in order to keep employees and patrons safe.
The word of caution came Thursday as Orange County reached a new total of 15,595 cumulative cases of COVID-19 plus 527 total hospitalizations and 69 deaths. The cumulative positivity rate for the area now sits at 9.6%.
“Just to give you an idea in the last 14 days between, you know, since June 25 to yesterday the 8th (of July), we have 8,672 cases in the last 14 days. In the entire duration of the pandemic we didn’t even have those numbers,” Pino said.
He broke down the numbers further saying that as of 5 p.m. Wednesday they were 498 current COVID-19 hospitalizations in the county and 85 patients in intensive care unit beds. There are 800 ventilators total in the county and thus far, 63 have been used on those who have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Pino.
Pino said at this point he’s not concerned about hospital capacity issues because local health care systems can always cut back on elective surgeries and take other measures, if need be. He said he is more concerned about staffing since it takes highly skilled medical professionals to work in the ICU.
He noted, too, that there are some COVID-19 patients who are in the hospital and despite their condition improving, they can’t be discharged because they don’t have anywhere to go to isolate without putting their families or others at risk.
The county is working to establish an isolation facility where those people could go until they fully recover, although that process could take some time.
Despite the fact that cases are still on the rise, Demings said one of his goals is to safely resume economic activity in the region. He announced that Orange County Convention Center, which is currently serving as a state-run coronavirus testing site, started preparations Thursday to host the AAU Volleyball Nationals next week.
“This athletic event will bring an estimated 12,000 participants, chaperones and coaches as well as nearly 5,000 family members. It will have an economic impact of nearly $15 million on our local economy. Extraordinary measures have been undertaken to make sure this is a safe and secure environment and event,” Demings said.
According to the mayor, there will be temperature checks, heightened sanitation and spectators will not be allowed.