Gov. DeSantis orders bars, nightclubs to close in response to coronavirus outbreak

New cases include additional patients in Jacksonville & Clay County

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives update on COVID-19 pandemic from State Capitol building in Tallahassee. (WPLG)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all of Florida’s bars and nightclubs closed for 30 days starting at 5 p.m. Tuesday, upending St. Patrick’s Day revelries as the state acts more aggressively to contain a new strain of coronavirus that has infected more than 170 people in Florida, killing five.

He also said he’s asking the state’s university board of governors to require students to return home for remote learning for the rest of the spring semester.

“We don’t want large crowds of people congregating right now,” the governor said. “We want enough isolation so that the virus has more difficulty spreading throughout the community.”

DeSantis announced the moves after a 77-year-old man in a Broward County assisted living facility died of coronavirus and four students at the University of Florida tested positive. He said other patients were being tested and monitored to help prevent casualties from spiraling upward. He did not identify the facility where the man died.

The number of cases in Florida has risen to 192 as two new cases were reported in Northeast Florida. Duval County is now home to six cases, while Clay and Alachua counties each have four cases. St. Johns County has two cases and Nassau has one.

The governor also announced that restaurants will have to limit the number of patrons to maintain safe distances between diners. Under the governor’s order, restaurants can only operate at half capacity.

“Stealth carriers – people who don’t have symptoms or have such mild symptoms but are nevertheless passing it along – is something that really nobody has a handle on that,” DeSantis said. “If they’re not meeting in those big groups, then the chance of that being passed on is less.”

Up until now, DeSantis has mostly refrained from issuing mandates and allowed localities to use their own judgment on how to limit public activities.

But with federal officials on Monday issuing stricter guidelines on public gatherings, the governor said it was time to act.

On Tuesday, officials in Key West shut down three tourist attractions — Southernmost Point, Smathers Beach and the sunset celebration at Mallory Square — to the public as a way of combating spread of the virus.

Many beaches in Florida, including Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale Beach and Hollywood Beach, have closed to spring break crowds. But some have stayed open: Beaches in Clearwater, on Florida's Gulf Coast, were packed with spring breakers on Monday afternoon.

The City of Miami tweeted that anti-social is the new social. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who tested positive for COVID-19 last week, told media outlets he plans to order all restaurants in the city to close their dining rooms and only offer takeout and delivery services. A final decision was expected on Tuesday, with the bans going into effect Wednesday morning.

The decisions came after President Donald Trump asked Americans on Monday to limit travel, avoid crowds of 10 or more people and to stay out of restaurants for the next 15 days in an effort to slow the impact of the global pandemic in America.

DeSantis said he took the actions on Tuesday after reviewing the federal guidelines.

According to a copy of the governor’s order, enforcement of the new restrictions on bars, night clubs and restaurants will be up to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Florida also unveiled a new online dashboard that provides the public with a clearer picture of where the virus has hit. The COVID-19 surveillance dashboard provides a color-coded map that shows the intensity of infections across the state. It showed 142 positive cases and five deaths as of Tuesday morning.

Florida — along with Arizona and Illinois — decided to proceed with Tuesday's presidential primary election. Ohio and Louisiana delayed their primaries, which had been set for Tuesday.

“Based on the best information that we have, we are confident that voters in Florida can safely and securely go to the polls and cast their ballots," Secretary of State Laurel Lee said Monday.

Almost 2 million Floridians voted early.

The virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, for most people, but older adults and those with existing health problems can develop severe complications, including pneumonia. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

Some communities, including Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale, had already ordered restaurants to close early to help with crowd control.