JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The two Florida counties hit hardest by coronavirus infections will begin slowly reopening Monday, with restaurants and retail shops allowed to bring in customers at a limited capacity, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday.
Miami-Dade and Broward counties will join the state's other 65 counties in the first phase of reopening the economy, but with severe restrictions. Spas, bars, gyms, beaches, movie theaters, bowling alleys and similar businesses will still be closed.
“We have a responsibility to move forward in a safe, smart and step by step approach. This will be an approach that would be rooted in facts, not in fear. It would be based on our observed experience, not based on hysteria,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Miami-Dade County.
Florida has more than 43,200 confirmed coronavirus cases since early March, resulting in 1,875 deaths. Miami-Dade and Broward have been the site of nearly half the confirmed cases, 20,800, and 43% of the deaths, 802.
DeSantis said the fact that Miami hosted the Super Bowl, South Florida is a hub for cruise ships and a lot of people fly to the area from New York contributed to the region being the epicenter of the state's virus outbreaks.
“When you have one of the biggest events in the world in the second week of February, the Super Bowl, the opportunity for that to start spreading through the community. When you have all these cruise ships coming in, all these flights from New York coming to Fort Lauderdale, these are really big challenges,” DeSantis said.
But he said the infection rates in the counties have dropped.
“They flattened the curve,” he said.
Six protesters yelled at DeSantis throughout his news conference, demanding that he reopen the state. The group, who declined to identify themselves, yelled “We are drowning, we can’t pay our bills” and “freedom is essential.”
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Miami would be able to advance to the “yellow stage of our new normal."
“This will include the limited openings of non-essential business and facilities such as restaurants, warehouses, manufacturing, office buildings and a specific list of small business,” he said. “We will still need to practice social distancing of at least six feet, wear face coverings on your mouth and news when indoors, wash your hands frequently.”
As Florida reopens, 10 state-supported drive-thru testing sites and four state-supported walk-up testing sites will be closed Friday through Sunday as a low pressure system currently near the Florida Keys is expected to hit the state with wind gusts up to 40 mph (64 kph). The testing sites, located in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Brevard and Volusia counties, are expected to reopen Monday.
Meanwhile, another 221,000 Floridians filed for unemployment benefits last week, even as restaurants and retail shops started re-opening in most of the state with limitations on May 4, according to figures released Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Labor reported that 221,905 new jobless claims were filed in Florida last week, up a quarter from the 174,860 claims filed the previous week.
Florida's unemployment system has been widely criticized for its difficulty in filing claims and also for delays in getting payments, so it's hard to determine if weekly fluctuations are due to actual new cases are those cases that have finally been accepted, critics say.
There were more than 433,000 new claims in the last week of April, and more than a half-million new claims in the week before that.
Nationwide, nearly 3 million laid-off workers applied for U.S. unemployment benefits last week.
Restaurants and retails shops in Florida started opening last week after DeSantis loosened some restrictions under his month-old stay-at-home order. Restaurants and retails shops can operate indoors at only 25% capacity.
Associated Press writers Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale and Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami contributed to this report.