TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Unveiling an initiative called “Safe. Smart. Step-by-Step,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday announced his plan to begin reopening the state and begin a slow climb from the economic abyss caused by the coronavirus.
Everywhere in Florida other than Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties and where local government has more stringent regulations, restaurants and retail stores will be allowed to reopen Monday at 25% capacity.
DeSantis’ order will also allow hospitals and surgical centers to restart nonessential, elective procedures in the rest of the state -- but only if they have sufficient medical supplies and agree to help nursing homes and assisted living facilities prevent and respond to coronavirus outbreaks. Parks, golf courses and other outdoor recreation areas already began reopening in some counties Wednesday.
“I am convinced we can take this step. We will be smart, we will be safe and we will do it step-by-step, but we should have hope,” DeSantis said. “We are resourceful, we are innovative, we can get this done. It is not going to happen overnight. If there was some magic where I could flip the switch, I would do it.”
DeSantis said the crisis has affected every one of Florida’s 21 million residents in some way. For some, it’s been grief or suffering. Some lost jobs or loss of income. For our children, it’s the loss of time with friends and important experiences. For their parents, it’s been overseeing distance learning while juggling their own lives.
Saying the state will be guided by the data and the principles of public health and safety, DeSantis said, “The only thing we have to fear is letting fear overwhelming our sense of purpose."
DeSantis, a Republican, is being more cautious than the neighboring state of Georgia, as well as the task force DeSantis formed last week to study how to get people back to work. The task force suggested restaurants could operate at 50% capacity, but the governor is easing in more slowly — 25% capacity inside, tables 6-feet apart outdoors. He said earlier this week that Florida will take “baby steps” in trying to resume business and is following through with that approach.
WATCH: Governor’s news conference announcing plan to begin reopening Florida
Many things won’t change in phase one. Schools will finish the academic year with distance learning, movie theatre, gyms and barbershops will remain closed. Bars and nightclubs also won’t reopen yet, but DeSantis is giving approval to sporting events if they don’t include spectators. The state will continue to restrict visitors to nursing homes and state prisons.
Scott Wicker, who owns Aster Hair Studio, said it’s tough knowing he still can’t go back to work.
“I’m not making any money for myself and I’m not making any money for my business," Wicker said. "I was hoping that we were going to be open by at least Tuesday. Now I’m going to have to call all those people and say I might be able to see you in three weeks.”
Wicker said he believes salons are just as safe as restaurants.
“It’s one of the businesses that you can contain how many people are in your business. If there are five stylists, there’s only going to be a maximum of five clients, as for if you’re going to go to a restaurant down the street, there might be 20 to 30 or 50 people," he said.
DeSantis continues to encourage people to avoid close contact, have vulnerable people avoid going out in public and encourage the wearing of face masks.
DeSantis is also not setting a date for the second phase, although he said it should be weeks rather than months. He said he’s taking a wait-and-see approach to how the state fares during the first phase and make decisions about the future based on data, adding that the data that matters is the rate of positive tests, which has dropped to around 5%, not the total number of cases identified in a given day.
Desantis said his goal was a state that is “healthy, safe, prosperous and free."
Florida has had more than 33,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus resulting in at least 1,218 deaths, according to the state Department of Health. But there has been a downward trend in new cases since early mid-April.
The state, like the nation, has seen large swaths of its workforce thrown into unemployment because of the shutdown and its two biggest economic sectors, tourism and agriculture, decimated as visitors fled and institutional produce buyers such as hotels and schools closed.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry applauded DeSantis’ decision.
“The governor and his entire team are taking action every day in Jacksonville by expanding testing, protecting our most vulnerable, distributing protective equipment to those heroic medical emergency workers and setting out a roadmap for opening our state,” Curry said in a statement released late Wednesday. “The plan lays out a phased approach that is safe, smart, and ready to guide us, step-by-step, back to the life we knew before the virus."
Jamie Lin, manager of Tokyo Ramen and Poke in Neptune Beach, said she can’t wait to have customers fill the empty chairs in the restaurant after the coronavirus slowed down sales.
“They kind of make your day because you want people to come in and enjoy your food,” Lin said. “We hope it can get back to normal again.”
Julianne Lilly, owner of Cousins Maine Lobster, was also looking forward to being reunited with customers.
:"I can’t wait to open my restaurant back up," Lilly said. “I am thrilled. Let’s get back to business.”
Still, many Floridians did not seem eager Wednesday to resume even partial normalcy. Retired Jacksonville teacher Pamela Riggs-Stoia said reopening anything without more testing for the disease and contact-tracing is foolish.
"I feel like we are treating people as disposable. Remember that not only are the participants in the newly opened places susceptible to infection, but the resulting secondary infections to family, roommates, etc, and most importantly exposing our medical providers to more and more viral load,'' said Riggs-Stoia, 60.
Zeytin Turkish Cuisine in Orlando will remain closed to sit-down dining for up to another month for safety reasons. Co-owner Michele Bourassa said that since the lockdown the mom-and-pop restaurant has only been serving takeout and earning about half its normal revenue. Any economic benefits to reopening don’t outweigh the risks, she said. Even if the restaurant were to reopen, with a requirement for only 25% capacity, "a restaurant isn’t going to make any money.''
"We don’t feel like it’s safe to open,'' Bourassa said. ``We don’t want someone coming in here who is sick.''
DeSantis was one of the last governors to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, preferring a county-by-county approach throughout March. Statewide, he essentially closed bars March 17 and on March 20 he closed gyms, limited restaurants to takeout and delivery and banned gatherings greater than 10. Schools also closed in March.
On April 1, the governor ordered the closure of nonessential businesses statewide starting two days later and ordered employees to work from home wherever possible.