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Saturday, January 16, 2021

DeSantis orders businesses reopened across Florida; reactions mixed

COVID-19 graphic generic
COVID-19 graphic generic

The floodgates are open with less than a week until UF’s football home opener: Bars and restaurants no longer have state-mandated capacity restrictions.

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Florida’s Phase 3 reopening Friday. The plan prohibits local governments from closing businesses and enforcing COVID-19 guidelines through fines or limited restaurant capacities. 

Because of Alachua County’s rising cases this month, Gainesville city officials have been critical of the governor’s decision.

Alachua County’s 14-day average positivity rate is 8.1%, and Sept. 11 saw the county’s highest number of positive cases in a single day — 225, according to its COVID-19 dashboard. More than a third of the county’s positive cases — 3,004 — have occurred since Aug. 31, the beginning of UF’s Fall semester.

UF’s mask and distancing policies won’t be affected by the governor's order, said UF spokesperson Steve Orlando. He said the school’s policies will remain in accordance with the Florida Board of Governors’ guidance.

DeSantis’ Phase 2 of reopening began June 3, where bars, restaurants and businesses were allowed to reopen at 50% capacity. Despite this plan initially excluding South Florida, Phase 2 preceded Florida’s largest surge in cases, which peaked in mid July as tens of thousands were infected.

In a Facebook post Friday, Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe said he was “extremely disappointed” with the governor’s order. The next day, Poe shared a letter he and County Chair Robert Hutchinson wrote to the governor, asking him to reconsider his decision.

“Just a few weeks ago, colleges and universities like the University of Florida opened amid the pandemic,” the letter read. “We have since seen a significant increase in cases, including our highest single-day positivity rate ever and the highest 14 day average since the pandemic began.”

Phase 3 vs. Local government

The Phase 3 order prohibits local governments from closing businesses or using fines or penalties to enforce COVID-19 guidelines, and restaurants cannot be forced to operate below 50% capacity. If local governments wish to limit capacity, they must appeal to the governor by explaining the health benefits and economic risks of a capacity limit.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called Florida’s reopening “very concerning” Monday.

Poe and Hutchinson urged DeSantis to allow more flexibility for local governments to enforce COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions.

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Since Sept. 15, the county’s median age for positive cases has fluctuated between 21 and 25 years old, according to Florida’s COVID-19 summary. Throughout the pandemic, the vast majority of the county’s cases, 41%, have been in the 15 to 24 age range, but these ages only account for 4% of hospitalizations.

Meanwhile, Alachua County’s 65- to 74-year-olds have accounted for only 6% of cases, but they account for the most hospitalizations — 21%, or 87 people — and the most deaths — 32%, or 18 people.

City Commissioner David Arreola said with the rise in cases, this is the wrong time to reopen the state.

“We are really coming off of our largest surge,” Arreola said. “This is the wrong time to be going backwards, and really, this isn’t just going backwards; it’s completely undoing months of work.”

Because Phase 3 limits local government restrictions, the city and county will no longer send code enforcers to businesses that violate COVID-19 safety guidelines.

Alachua County stationed code enforcers outside of businesses up until Sept. 15, handing out masks and ensuring staff and customers were in compliance with COVID-19 guidelines. Until that point, the county reported 98% mask-wearing compliance at those select businesses.

Missy Daniels, Alachua County growth management director, said the county will encourage businesses to continue mask and distancing policies. She said the county will not send code enforcers anymore. 

Arreola said up until now, the city opted to close businesses for violating guidelines until they remedied whatever issue they had, rather than giving fines or penalties. 

Appealing to the governor to maintain COVID-19 enforcement requires the local government to report potential economic risks of COVID-19 restrictions, which Arreola said would be a difficult and unnecessary process for businesses, considering the challenges of reopening and managing influxes of customers. He said they’d likely have to present income balance sheets, possibly through the last five years. 

“It's an academic exercise to go through quantifying the economic cost, and it's nonsense for the governor to expect that,” he said. 

Arreola said the process of appealing to the governor for restrictions is unfair and discouraging.

“This is a fake olive branch with no sincerity at the end of it,” he said. “I won't be placing my trust in that process.”

Phase 3 and local businesses

Some businesses are maintaining safety restrictions as they reopen despite the city’s now-limited ability to enforce COVID-19 guidelines.

The High Dive, a music venue in downtown Gainesville, will reopen with strict mask and distancing policies in place, said its facility and event manager, Patrick Lavery. 

“This isn’t going to be a free-for-all,” Lavery said. “We've very carefully considered what we need to do, and we've created guidelines and we're gonna stick to them.”

He said the High Dive will enforce a masks-at-all-times policy indoors, and before people enter, they must be covered. He said the High Dive will provide — and eventually sell — masks to customers who need them.

With live music mostly obsolete this year, the High Dive was closed for six months, which Lavery said was devastating. It cost about $10,000 every month to remain closed.

He said reopening shouldn’t be a black or white issue, because while the health risks are real, so are the personal and economic impacts of businesses like his remaining closed.

“It's gut wrenching,” he said. “You're basically spending your entire day, every day just trying to figure out how you're going to survive, and you know, trying to lobby politicians.”

Lavery said they will provide indoor, seated shows in the coming weeks. Capacity will be reduced, and mask guidelines will be enforced, he said. People will only be allowed to drink in the outdoor beer garden, so there’s no reason to take masks off indoors.

Some businesses have received criticism for neglecting COVID-19 guidelines with their reopenings.

A controversial photo circulated around social media of about 40 people lined up outside of DownTown Fats Bar Sept. 21, tightly packed and maskless. The bar’s manager that night said the crowd gathered before the bar opened, so employees weren’t able to enforce distancing guidelines yet.

That night, the bar underwent a “soft relaunch,” only marketing through word of mouth. The manager said staff addressed the distancing problem as soon as the bar opened.

Other bars have had similar crowds lined up outside, maskless and non-distanced, including Lit at Midtown. The bar’s Facebook page has numerous pictures of people grouped together without masks.

Lawrence Clay, owner of Bricks Nightclub and Lit at Midtown, said customers’ temperatures are checked at the door and they will need masks to enter, but he will not enforce any capacity, distancing or mask policies inside either nightclub. 

“People can choose to wear masks when they come in; we do require masks when they come in,” he said. “But they can take them off when they get in there, and it is what it is.”

He said because student house parties haven’t had distancing or capacity restrictions, his nightclubs shouldn’t have to either.

“They’ve been having house parties for the last six or seven weeks, and all these kids have already caught it [COVID-19],” he said. “There's no difference when you congregate to a nightclub.”

Lit at Midtown has been open since the summer, and Bricks opens Thursday. Both nightclubs’ full capacities allow for several hundred people at a time. Clay said he isn’t concerned about spreading COVID-19 because even more students are partying elsewhere, and he thinks the virus will never go away anyways.

“The governor had a stance and to me it made sense,” he said. “When does this shit end? It’s not going to end, bro — it’s not going to go away.”



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