As virtually all coronavirus indicators trend in the right direction, Orange County leaders on Monday said they’re reluctant to risk the progress by relaxing restrictions on bars, ahead of planned meetings later this week between industry officials and state regulators.
“It’s far too risky,” Mayor Jerry Demings said. “... We were able to track substantial outbreaks associated with bars. I don’t want to go back to that. We’ve got to hold steady to contain the virus. The things we have in place that seem to be working, let’s keep them in place.”
Since peaking in mid-June, Orange has seen its positivity rate steadily decline for four straight weeks, while cases requiring hospitalization or an ICU bed also decreased for the first week since May 29, said Dr. Raul Pino, the Florida Department of Health officer for the county.
Daily data reported Monday shows 7.7% of tests returned Sunday were positive for the virus, and 6.9% of tests Saturday were positive, while the county’s cumulative rate is 11.4%.
However, deaths are still increasing, Pino said, with 19 new deaths reported in the county since Thursday. That measure typically lags a few weeks behind the other data points.
“This thing can come back… if we take our guard down,” Pino said. “If anything, we need to be more on top of this issue.”
After a campaign from Florida’s craft brewers and legal challenges from bar owners, Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears announced a series of meetings throughout the state, starting Friday, to devise a plan to reopen.
Beshears, an appointee of Gov. Ron DeSantis, banned on-site consumption of alcohol at bars in June.
At the time, COVID-19 cases were spiking in Orange County and trace investigations had linked dozens — if not hundreds — of infections to bars, particularly in east Orange County near the University of Central Florida.
The Florida Brewers Guild, an industry lobbying group, said last week more than 100 craft breweries could permanently close if they’re not allowed to sell drinks for on-site consumption, without an aid package to buoy them.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said he thinks breweries could potentially re-open safely but bars are a different challenge, since most are small spaces where patrons gather for social purposes. After a few drinks, they could become relaxed in practicing social distancing and wearing masks, he said.
“You generally go to bars to interact with other people,” Dyer said, noting he’s sympathetic to the industry, which has been crushed by the pandemic. “It’s an extremely difficult situation, and if bars are going to be opened, I think there needs to be some strict monitoring. We need to be able to hold the owners accountable.”
Demings called for holding the line and not reopening bars, citing challenges with allowing people to gather in small areas. He said he’d be more likely to support allowing people to drink at bars with outdoor spaces.
Demings said his strike teams of compliance inspectors could visit bars if they reopen to ensure they’re following safety guidelines.
So far those teams, comprised of health officials, code enforcement and others, have inspected 140 businesses, finding about 82% in compliance. The most common shortcomings include a lack of signage and not having markings on the floor to encourage social distancing.
Pino said health officials are closely monitoring COVID-19 outbreaks in three assisted living facilities: the Ocoee Health Care Center on Maguire Road in Ocoee, the Guardian Care Nursing & Rehabilitation Center on Church Street in Orlando and Terra Vista Rehabilitation and Health Center on Lucerne Terrace in Orlando.
COVID-19 is blamed for the deaths of four residents of the Ocoee facility, while 22 others are in hospital care. Health officials say 66 residents and 30 members of the nursing home’s staff have tested positive.
Pino said one resident of Guardian Care has died from COVID-19 and 13 others are hospitalized. Forty of the 74 residents and 34 of the nursing home’s 175 employees have tested positive.
At Terra Vista, 33 of the 59 residents have tested positive for the virus, 10 are in hospital care and one has died. About 26 staffers are sick with COVID-19.
“Any little violation of infection control practices, as simple as washing your hands between patients, can set off an outbreak like this one,” Pino said. “This virus has the ability to transmit so fast.”
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