Florida moves to phase 3 of coronavirus reopening, with restaurants at full capacity

Announcement catches local leaders by surprise

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis announced last Friday that Florida, effective immediately, is moving to the third and final phase of its reopening plan.

DeSantis made the announcement in St. Petersburg, a day after he spoke at a roundtable about which coronavirus restrictions have and haven’t been effective during the past six months. During that discussion, he said focusing on elderly and at-risk groups was more effective than blanket business closures.

[Click here to read the phase three executive order]

DeSantis honed in on restaurants, hinting then that he’d lift capacity limits soon and on Friday, he made that move official. He’s also enacting a measure that will prohibit local governments from capping capacity at anything less than 50%. Statewide, there will be no capacity restrictions.

“We are today moving into what we initially called phase three and what that will mean for the restaurants is that there will not be limitations, from the state of Florida and in fact, we’re also cognizant about the need for business certainty. There have been some local closures and other types of restrictions and so the order that I’m signing today will guarantee restaurants operate, will not allow closures. They can operate at a minimum of 50% regardless of local rule. And then, if a local restricts between 50 and 100 (percent), they’ve got to provide the justification and they’ve got to identify what the costs involved with doing that are,” DeSantis said.

[Watch the governor’s full announcement below]

WATCH LIVE: Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks from Polk County Sheriff's Office

WATCH LIVE: Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks from Polk County Sheriff's Office. https://bit.ly/2ZXgP4v

Posted by News 6 WKMG / ClickOrlando on Monday, September 21, 2020

Brittany Jacobsen works as a manager at Anthony’s Thornton Park.

“We’ve all been waiting for this day for months,” she said. “We still have some aspects of phase 2. Obviously, we reopened up to 100% seating, but we do have some tables put away from others, so if someone does want to sit a little further away, we’re still able to do that for them.”

Across the street at Sperry Deli & Creamery, the sign requiring masks will stay up as well.

“We’re not out of this yet,” owner Charles Baumis said. “It’s been a real bad six months, and we just hope to look forward to a good six months moving ahead.”

For bars, which got the greenlight to open earlier this month, it’ll be up to local governments to decide how they’d like to handle capacity.

“The bars are status quo from what we have. If you want to go beyond the 50 (percent), you can authorize it and do it. We’re not telling you you have to, but we’re not going to stand in the way of that, so that’ll be a local decision if they want to try to do more capacity in some of the bars and pubs,” DeSantis said.

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The governor didn’t address gyms, salons, theme parks or retail shops during his remarks Friday. Plans released by the state earlier this year indicated that salons could do away with capacity limits come phase three. Gyms and retail businesses have already been operating at full capacity, but if the earlier plans hold true, gyms can now do away with certain social distancing protocols.

A spokesperson with Walt Disney World released the following statement:

“We received the governor’s executive order and are evaluating it to determine what it may mean for our business. We are not making any immediate changes. As a reminder, face coverings are still required at Walt Disney World Resort.”

DeSantis has long pushed to get residents in the state back to work in a way that’s safe, but he acknowledged that the threat of the coronavirus still remains.

[READ: Here’s what to expect when Florida enters phase 3 of reopening | Bars across Florida allowed to reopen]

“I think people should still understand that the virus, it doesn’t go away. I mean, even if you have a vaccine it doesn’t go away because the chance of the vaccine being 100% effective is very small,” DeSantis said. “So it’s going to be at a minimum endemic and so that’s why I think it’s so important to focus on the risk to the folks who are especially vulnerable for this.”

Another move announced Friday, which the governor called “an act of executive grace,” was to remove fines levied against individuals who violated either masks ordinances or social distancing guidelines. The governor didn’t say whether that also applied to business owners who were found in violation.

“All these fines, we’re going to hold in abeyance and hope that we can move forward in a way that’s more collaborative,” DeSantis said.

Friday’s announcement caught some local government leaders by surprise.

“The way I found out about the order was a bar owner called me to say, ‘what is Governor DeSantis doing?’” said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings criticized the governor for what he called a lack of communication with local leaders.

“I’m disappointed about that because as we deal with this pandemic, everything happens at the local level,” said Demings. “This is where the rubber meets the road, and in order for us to be affective at dealing with the virus, we have to have good communication across the state.”

Though Florida saw its peak in July, there’s still a possibility of a second wave of new infections as the weather across the country begins to cool down.

DeSantis said if and when that happens, the state will be ready but officials will take a different approach than before.

“If we see an increase, we’re not closing anything going forward. But I think if you look at our hospital capacity, if you look at we did to marshal the latest medications, if you look at what we’ve done to help with all the PPE and the testing and everything -- you know we have the tools in place that we need,” the governor said.

Florida reported 2,847 new cases of COVID-19 Friday, bringing the state total to 695,887 since March. There were also 122 deaths reported Friday for a cumulative total of 14,083.

To keep up with the latest news on the pandemic, subscribe to News 6′s coronavirus newsletter and go to ClickOrlando.com/coronavirus.

About the Authors:

Erik Sandoval joined the News 6 team as a reporter in May 2013 and became an Investigator in 2020. During his time at News 6, Erik has covered several major stories, including the 2016 Presidential campaign. He was also one of the first reporters live on the air at the Pulse Nightclub shooting.

It has been an absolute pleasure for Clay LePard living and working in Orlando since he joined News 6 in July 2017. Previously, Clay worked at WNEP TV in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he brought viewers along to witness everything from unprecedented access to the Tobyhanna Army Depot to an interview with convicted double-murderer Hugo Selenski.