Gov. Ron DeSantis indicated Thursday that a plan to make the next move in reopening restaurants could be around the corner.
Restaurants have been open at 50% capacity since May, but the state pumped the breaks on reopening plans after COVID-19 cases surged across the Sunbelt this summer.
“I think we’re going to be comfortable moving forward very soon, and I think that that’s important,” DeSantis said.
Very soon could be even sooner than it seems. During the same roundtable in Fort Myers, the Governor said the Department of Business and Professional Regulation was close to reopening bars before Secretary Halsey Beshears responded with an executive order late Thursday marking Monday as the reopening date.
The decision to close bars, which came only three weeks after the state reopened them in June, was the only action the state took to increase lockdowns despite calls to revert the reopening process. The state dealt with increased prevalence that has now subsided, the Governor noted, and hospitalizations have declined again instead of continually increasing.
“The idea that restaurants were some big driver has just not been borne out by the evidence,” DeSantis said, adding that restaurants are important for the economy and spending time with family.
“People end up doing things that don’t make a difference in terms of stopping the prevalence but actually cause significant damage to folks who are just trying to earn a living,” he said.
Last week, DeSantis said Beshears was inundated with enforcing bar restrictions when they reopened in June, comparing the effort to wack-a-mole. As restaurant reopenings continue, the Secretary suggested a plan that seemed to mirror the initial attempt at restaurant reopenings.
“Moving forward, we’re going to look at the bad actors, that’s it — so not everyone gets punished,” the Secretary said.
Most restaurants are mom-and-pop shops with owners who “pour their heart and soul” into the business to make it work, he said, and the disruptions make it even more difficult.
Beshears, who also attended the roundtable alongside Fort Myers-area restaurateurs, agreed.
“The wake of destruction this pandemic has left, particularly on the hospitality industry, is massive,” Beshears said.
“You blow up the entire model of how many people you’re allowed in your restaurant in order to make ends meet, now becomes almost impossible,” Beshears added.
The Governor again endorsed the Legislature allowing restaurants to sell alcohol to-go permanently. With the measure’s success during the pandemic, he suggested it would lend restaurants an extra hand.
“I’m for it being permanent, and I think that you’ll probably get a pretty good reception in the Legislature just based on the experience and just based off everyone having to go through what you guys have gone through,” he said.
Once DeSantis lifts the pandemic emergency order, alcohol sales will revert to the status quo. And he noted that “this state of emergency cannot last forever.”
Getting the tourism, leisure and hospitality industries back on their feet has been a priority for the Governor over the past several weeks. While DeSantis met with Beshears and restaurant owners, the Legislature’s lead economic expert was briefing lawmakers on the $2.7 billion budget shortfall for the 2021 to 2022 fiscal year, half of which is attributed to tourism.
DeSantis previously supported travel restrictions from Europe and Brazil, taking the lead on the Brazil restriction. But those efforts have run their course, he says.
“To me, there’s no difference of someone coming down from Georgia to come down to Fort Myers than somebody coming from London to come to Fort Myers,” DeSantis said.