TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and a top state official on Thursday cleared the way for bars to reopen and restaurants to begin packing in patrons again, even as some pockets of the state recorded recent spikes in positive Covid-19 test results.
Florida’s top alcohol regulator said late Thursday he will allow bars to reopen statewide at 50 percent capacity starting on Monday. The move by Halsey Beshears, the secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, gives the industry a second chance at heeding safety precautions meant to protect the spread of the virus after an earlier attempt to ease restrictions fueled a resurgence of the virus in Florida.
In a statement, Beshears said he believes bars and breweries are now committed to health and safety standards amid the presence of the virus.
“It’s vital that we start moving forward with this sector of our hospitality industry who have endured one of the toughest paths for sustaining a business during this pandemic,” said.
The plan to reopen the bars was released just hours after DeSantis, a Republican who resisted early calls to shut down businesses in the spring, said he will allow restaurants to start packing dining rooms again. DeSantis told reporters at a restaurant roundtable discussion in Fort Myers that he will lift a 50 percent capacity limit on indoor dining “very soon.”
The decisions came as cities such as Tallahassee and Panama City reported an increase in positive Covid-19 tests since the Labor Day weekend. But DeSantis said a drop in emergency room visits shows the state is getting better at managing the pandemic.
“I think, sometimes, it’s overreacting to some of that stuff,” DeSantis said, adding of hospital visits: “Those are truly the key metrics.”
The statewide rate of new infections as of Wednesday was 5.54 percent, which is less than half the 12.24 percent seen in Leon County, where Tallahassee is located. Bay County, home to Panama City, also saw a 12.26 percent rate of new infections on Wednesday, a drop from the 22.99 percent recorded the day before, according to a state Department of Health report.
“Over the last however many couple weeks … tens of thousands of people tested positive, and they haven’t found one hospital admission yet,“ DeSantis said. “Sometimes you just got to put these cases in perspective.”
DeSantis first closed bars statewide on March 17 as Covid-19 began to spread rapidly across South Florida. The rate of new virus infections eventually dropped by late April, prompting DeSantis to allow restaurant dining rooms to reopen under a capacity restriction in early May, and they were followed by bars in early June.
Beshears closed the bars in late June after the state began to see a resurgence of infections. Contract-tracing teams assembled by the Florida Department of Health determined people were catching the virus at a handful of bars that were ignoring capacity restrictions and social distancing standards.
At least 12,326 people in Florida have died from Covid-19 since March, and 654,731 have tested positive in the state, another DOH report shows.