DeSantis announces reopening plan for Florida

Tribune Content Agency

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that Florida will start lifting stay-at-home orders starting Monday.

In a plan he’s labeling “Safe. Smart. Step-by-Step,” DeSantis said Wednesday in a news conference at the Capitol that the state will take a “very slow and methodical approach” to reopening in order to convince the public it’s safe.

The orders won’t apply to Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, however, where the epidemic has hit hardest.

DeSantis said the first phase of the plan, which begins Monday, will closely follow the White House’s own guidelines, including:

— Schools will remain closed

— Restaurants will be allowed to do outdoor seating with 6-foot social distancing

— Retail stores can open at 25% indoor capacity

— Bars, gyms and personal care places such as salons will remain closed

— Elective surgeries will be allowed to resume

— Nursing homes and long-term care facility visits will still be prohibited

DeSantis said people are still being encouraged to stay home, however.

The governor pointed to declining numbers of hospitalizations from influenza-like illnesses — a key indicator of COVID-19 cases — COVID-19 deaths and other metrics that he said show the state is ready to lift its stay-at-home order, which was imposed April 1.

He said he ran Florida’s plan by White House officials including Dr. Deborah Birx, who is coordinating the White House response to the pandemic.

“They agree Florida is ready to go to phase one,” he said.

For the last two weeks, DeSantis has been on a coronavirus victory tour, touting the state’s relatively low numbers of cases and demeaning experts and the news media for citing projections showing the state could have faced a much worse pandemic.

DeSantis flew to Washington on Tuesday for a nationally televised meeting with his ally, President Donald Trump, where he continued to criticize his counterparts for issuing “draconian orders” in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.

“You name (the state), Florida’s done better,” DeSantis said.

Florida has fared far better than projections from early in the pandemic, which showed that without social distancing and other measures, the state could see hundreds of thousands of cases. DeSantis’ administration and hospitals across the state relied on those projections to stock up on medical supplies, make room for potential COVID-19 patients and finally, on April 1, issue a stay-at-home order.

As of Tuesday, Florida has reported more than 1,200 deaths and more than 33,000 known cases of the new coronavirus. The number of new cases reported each day generally has been declining in recent days.

But the same downward trend is not yet true for COVID-19 deaths. Florida’s deaths are currently doubling roughly every 16 days, a quicker rate than states like Georgia, New York and Louisiana.

Tuesday was the deadliest day so far, with 83 reported COVID-19 related deaths.


In his push to convince the public that it’s safe to reopen the state, DeSantis convened a task force of business leaders and state and local politicians last week to come up with recommendations on how to reopen safely.

Those recommendations have yet to be released, but one of the task force members, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, the incoming Senate president, gave the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times a preview of what Floridians can expect over the next months.

The first priority must be to protect vulnerable populations, especially those in elder-care facilities, by keeping the safety precautions in place.

The next priority is that workers in industries that require close contact with customers, such as hair dressers, retailers and restaurants, will have to get accustomed to wearing personal protective equipment and be screened daily with temperature and symptom checks.

“That will get those businesses back and substantially running,” Simpson said.

Restaurants will open with 6 feet of space between patrons and they will likely have be remain only 30% to 40% occupied. He also expects the public to wear masks in restaurants until they are ready to eat. Airports will have to screen passengers before they get on planes and, in a few months, conduct rapid COVID-19 tests before every flight. Hospitals will screen patients 48 hours before they arrive for surgeries or other medical procedures.

But there won’t be stadium gatherings for a long time to come, he said.

“Technology will have to catch up to those events,” Simpson said.


Critical to getting Florida’s tourism-dependent economy will be the availability of widespread testing. Tourists will be expected to be tested before they arrive and again when they are ready to leave, Simpson said.

“That will give the general public confidence,” he said.

Day care centers and nursing homes will be expected to be routinely testing their employees, he said.

Although Florida has significantly increased its testing capability in the last two weeks, the capacity is far short of what public health experts say is needed to safely reopen the state.

Florida needs to test at least 150 people for every 100,000 residents every day — that’s about 33,000 people every day, more than double the current rate, said Dr. Charles Lockwood, the dean of the University of South Florida’s College of Medicine at a news conference with DeSantis at Tampa General Hospital on Monday.

The governor is promising to have 18,000 tests a day at state labs by the end of May, but hospitals and nursing homes throughout the state continue to face shortages of supplies and testing kits. And both the Florida Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advance guidelines that don’t allow everyone who wants a test to get one.

“Thirty days from now we could have a sea change of testing capabilities,” Simpson said. But until then, “businesses with (personal protective equipment) and thoughtfulness can start opening on a limited basis — industry by industry.”


What happens when employees can’t or won’t stay home? What happens when employers won’t pay for sick leave?

To make employees and customers confident that restaurants are safe, companies should offer paid sick leave for up to 14 days for all employees, José Cil, CEO of Restaurant Brands International, which owns Burger King, Popeyes and Tim Hortons restaurants, told Florida’s task force last week.

Simpson said employees should simply stay home if they don’t feel well.

He also said that employers have been given additional resources through the federal loan program, “and I would hope employers take advantage of that if an employee has to stay home.”

He admits that there will be some who won’t follow the guidelines and take advantage of people.

“Five years from now, we’re going to find people who did a really good job at it and others who took advantage of things and didn’t do a good job at it,” he said. “But the vast majority of people that receive any of this aid are doing it in a responsible fashion.”

Simpson is also optimistic that Florida and the nation will edge out of this crisis because of what is happening with the science around COVID-19.

“The best pharmaceutical companies in the world are making testing kits, therapeutic medicines and vaccines,” he said. Rapid testing and antibody testing will also help to inform decision makers in the months ahead.


(Tampa Bay Times staff writer Allison Ross contributed to this report.)


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