Bars and nightclubs across South Florida finally reopened their doors Saturday to patrons ready to celebrate the end of the coronavirus pandemic shutdowns and even raise a glass to their new hero, Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“Our amazing governor put the screws on these local politicians that were suppressing us,” said Peter Wood, celebrating his 56th birthday at Fort Lauderdale’s iconic Elbo Room.
Backed by health data showing the virus under control, DeSantis said he wanted to end six months of frustration with government restrictions by clearing the way for all shuttered Florida businesses to return and permanently stay open.
The move could help boost sagging popularity for DeSantis, a Republican and key ally of President Donald Trump, just as voters begin filling out ballots for the November election and continue waiting for a vaccine.
Polling numbers in July, as Florida was in the thick of a surge of new COVID-19 infections, were down sharply for the first-term governor. Democrats have criticized him for disregarding the advice of some public health experts, reopening the state too soon, and pushing in-person instruction in public schools.
An updated poll this month from Quinnipiac University showed some improvement for the governor, finding 45% of Florida voters approved of DeSantis' handling of the coronavirus, while 49% disapproved.
The governor’s decision to fully reopen the state is a political gamble that could come back to haunt Republicans if deaths and case numbers climb again, said Aubrey Jewett, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida.
“The political calculation is it will attract more votes by mobilizing Republicans and maybe convince some swing voters that it is the right move,” he said. Jewett added it could also turn off some elderly Floridians fearful of virus who might see it as "one more reason they are going to vote for [Joe] Biden.”
While DeSantis' Phase 3 order has political ramfications, it also fits in with the approach the governor has taken throughout the pandemic, Jewett noted.
“He is not only doing it because he is trying to help Trump win,” the professor explained. “Philosophically, he really thinks this is the right thing to do. We need to reopen the state. We need to get people back to work. We need to acknowledge the virus is still out there, but we don’t need to shut down the state.”
DeSantis expressed confidence that the worst was behind Florida and that there is minimal risk that allowing full restaurant capacities and ramping up tourism would result in higher infection rates and hospitalizations.
The governor says he hopes the Super Bowl, scheduled for Feb. 7 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, will be packed with fans.
“I also want to be able to show we’re going to be able to host the Super Bowl in February,” DeSantis said Friday. “We expect to do a full Super Bowl.”
The governor said a big reason for his outlook is because the prevalence of the virus diminished after more reopenings since July.
"We’ve actually seen more economic activity, more interaction, schools have opened, all the theme parks are open, more people have visited and what has happened with hospitalizations? COVID-positive hospitalizations are down 76% since the July peak,” DeSantis said.
“ICU hospitalizations are down 72% since the July peak ... and [emergency room] visits for COVID-like illness are down close to 80%,” he added.
The state’s much-watched testing positivity rate is under the preferred 5% level, another key sign that the virus is under control.
Saturday’s official data show the daily positivity for the state at 4.14%, down from 4.25% the previous day. This figure reflects only new infections based on COVID-19 testing for the day; it does not count people who previously tested positive for the disease.
DeSantis presented statistics from the Centers for Disease Control showing that the survivability rate for people who get infected is over 99% for people 69 and under; it drops to 94.6% for people 70 and older. But he did not mention Florida’s death toll, which surpassed 14,000 resident deaths on Saturday.
DeSantis wants business owners and residents to know that they don’t have to worry about future shutdowns, even if there is another wave of cases.
“We’re not closing anything going forward,” he said. “Rather than trying to close things, what you want to do is have an age-specific strategy that really focuses on mitigating exposures and mitigating infections from the people who are most at risk for this."
The Phase 3 news took caught some South Florida governments by surprise and they rushed Friday to craft updated local restrictions allowed under the governor’s order.
Palm Beach County, which wasn’t going to reopen bars until Oct. 5, immediately flipped the switch.
George Valantasis, co-owner of Salt 7 restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach, said he reopened a bar and stayed open until 2 a.m. Saturday. He said county rules will be enforced.
“Everyone has to come in with masks,” Valantasis said. “It went very well. I brought in my security to monitor the door and make sure we’re not getting bum-rushed with people.”
Meanwhile, Brian Freed, co-owner of C.W.S. Bar+Kitchen in Lake Worth, said, "One of the best nights that we’ve had since the outbreak. Everyone is really over it. They are dying to get out and do stuff and get out get back to normal.”
Broward County established new rules for nightclubs, pubs, breweries, cigar bars, and strip clubs to resume operations. Seating is not permitted at bar counters.
“Patrons are prohibited from ordering food or beverage at the bar counter and are prohibited from congregating at the bar counters or elsewhere,” the new county order states.
The government also updated procedures for restaurants, such as limiting tables to six patrons, keeping customers 6 feet apart, and banning on-site dining between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.
County Mayor Dale Holness urged compliance.
“With the reopening of all remaining businesses, it is as important as ever to adhere to local Emergency Orders, including wearing facial covering, practicing social distancing and good personal hygiene (including frequent and thorough handwashing,)” Holness said in a statement. “This is a very important time in the recovery process to understand we must not let down our guard.”
Elbo Room owner/manager Mike Penrod said he’s only allowing up to 140 customers, mostly outside and on the second-floor balcony. The capacity of the 82-year-old establishment at Las Olas Boulevard and State Road A1A is 288.
“We just want to make sure it’s as close to [safe] as it might be because no one has told us what we should do,” said Penrod, whose family bought the historic bar in 1981. “But I don’t want to get in trouble ... we’re trying to make everybody happy."
Penrod said there are a lot of relieved business owners who are praising DeSantis these days.
“I was fishing on my friend’s boat the other day and we got a blast of text messages saying, ‘Ron DeSantis saved our small businesses,’ so that guy kicks ass,” he said. “You know who we’re voting for.”
Photojournalist Mike Stocker and staff writer Rod Hagwood contributed to this report. Marc Freeman can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @marcjfreeman.
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