FORT MYERS, Fla. – During a roundtable discussion Thursday afternoon, Gov. Ron DeSantis let restaurateurs know that he understands they’re struggling to pay their bills amid the coronavirus pandemic and he hopes to make changes soon to allow them to do more business.
DeSantis didn’t provide any specifics on what he had planned or when changes could take place, but he told Floridians to “stay tuned” when asked about bars reopening and said that he wants to help restaurants rebound and get all of their employees back to work.
During the discussion, business owners repeatedly asked DeSantis to allow restaurants to operate with 100% indoor capacity rather than the current 50%.
Restaurants across the state were forced to shift to a take-out only model in mid-March to stop the spread of COVID-19. Then in early May, they were allowed to reopen with 25% capacity for indoor seating.
Weeks later, the capacity was increased to 50%, which is where it has remained since mid-May.
Jay Johnson, the owner of Bubba’s Roadhouse & Saloon in Cape Coral, was among the representatives who asked DeSantis on Thursday to allow restaurants to operate at full capacity.
“We were able to adjust our business in April to where we were down 63% in sales but at the end of the day, I’m happy to announce a profit of $150 that month,” Johnson joked.
He said his staff has continued to make adjustments.
“We’d like to ask that you could look at reopening the restaurant to allow us more capacity. I think our customers are comfortable with what we’re doing, we’ve gone above and beyond on cleaning, on making sure that we know more about our employees' health and wellness,” Johnson said.
DeSantis said right now most employees in the restaurant industry are back to work and he’d like to take the steps necessary to allow them all to return to their jobs.
He described the 50% capacity limitation as “arbitrary” and said moving forward, he’d like policies to be more dependent on evidence and science.
“I think that a lot of the restaurants are gonna be able to make sense on some of this stuff, you know, as we look to, you know, have more capacity and ultimately, we have, you know, folks who I think that we’re getting to a situation where people are starting to feel a little bit more comfortable, at least I hope so,” DeSantis.
He said diners will choose to patronize businesses that have safety protocols in place, so each individual restaurant owner has an incentive to make sure they’re taking steps to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation secretary Halsey Beshears said the state initially took a blanket approach to enforcing COVID-19 rules and in the future, he wants to make sure that compliant business owners aren’t penalized.
“I just, I can’t stress that enough, moving forward we’re gonna look at the bad actors, that’s it, so not everyone gets punished,” Beshears said.
One saving grace for some restaurants struggling to make rent and other payments has been allowing customers to purchase to-go cocktails. DeSantis said in May that he’d like that to be a permanent fixture in Florida, an idea he reiterated during the roundtable.
“So I think it should be made permanent I think it was, I think it’s been helpful. So we’ll have to talk to the legislature. As long as the state of emergency’s in effect, they’re going to be able to do it (serve to-go alcohol), but, you know, the state of emergency can’t last forever,” DeSantis said.
As of Thursday, Florida has reported 654,731 COVID-19 cases since March along with 12,482 deaths and 40,807 hospitalizations.
In recent weeks, the state’s daily case numbers and positivity rate have been trending downward.
“I think we’re going to be comfortable, you know, moving forward very soon and I think that that’s important,” DeSantis said.