Some Broward County leaders acknowledge trying to enforce COVID-19 restrictions may be an unrealistic exercise in futility, but the county still is forging ahead with a plan to “reopen” the county by loosening its rules.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has wiped away any COVID-19-related fines against people and businesses over the past year across the state, calling such penalties “out of control” and “heavy handed.” In response, many counties complained the governor has prevented counties from enforcing their own requirements, such as wearing masks.
Broward commissioners have backed a plan for reopening the county, an initiative that includes:
Agreeing to lift sanitizing and capacity rules at pools and for outdoor activities, such as golf. It goes into effect once an order is drafted by the county attorney.
Once certain benchmarks for positivity and vaccination rates are met, lifting other capacity limits and 6-foot social distancing rules that revolve around restaurants, hotels, stores, among other places.
Approving a recovery plan that would kick-start as soon as 50% of eligible adults have received at least one vaccine and the positivity rate is 5% for an average of 10 consecutive days. It would call for lifting capacity limits and 6-foot social distancing rules at restaurants, hotels, stores, private gatherings within homes, amateur sports events with spectators, charter fishing boats and function spaces.
Eventually looking toward revising an order that calls for operating at half-capacity at movie theaters, auditoriums, museums, concert halls, gambling casinos, vacation rentals and common areas of housing developments such as pools, gyms and community rooms.
Ultimately discussing additional phases for reopening, which would include fully opening bars, gyms, bowling alleys and arcades.
Is it worth it?
Some leaders think the county’s attempts at “reopening” are meaningless because many people don’t follow the rules anyway and the county’s efforts at enforcement have been mostly squashed.
Commissioner Lamar Fisher voted “no’”to the county’s reopening plans because “you can’t continue to have these restrictions when they are unrealistic.”
“The time has come, folks,” he said. “We can require masks, but the governor of the state of Florida has said: You can’t fine that person. The time has come. We’ve got to let it go.”
“Get us open as soon as we can,” he said. “I’m a proponent of masking, but ultimately it’s up to the individual at this point. The governor has said you can’t fine anybody. How do you enforce it?”
Besides Fisher, Commissioner Mark Bogen was the other “no” vote against the reopening plans because he wants to see all restrictions lifted except for masks. “Masks have been proven to stop the transmission of the disease,” he said. “I don’t see the need for any other restrictions we may have.”
And, “we have no enforcement,” he said, except for the county shutting down businesses. “We have the authority to regulate the businesses that don’t follow our rules. When you go into Publix, you have to wear a mask. We can enforce where people are congregating inside a commercial establishment.
“The other restrictions, I just don’t get it.”
‘Giving it a try’
Some officials see the opportunity to make a difference with enforcement efforts. Broward Mayor Steve Geller said Tuesday the county still can take enforcement action because “we can still shut down businesses.”
The county has issued 14 temporary business closures over the course of the pandemic, two of them more than once, citing offenses such as “social distancing not enforced,” and some cities have cited dozens of businesses on their own as well. The county attorney’s office would only call the enforcement “fluid” without any clarification.
With vaccination efforts underway for months now, about 570,000 people in Broward have already received one shot, according to Geller.
At that rate, it will be 21 days before 50% of Broward is vaccinated. About 1.55 million adults live in Broward. The positivity rate in Broward, however, is 8.1%, and Geller said he didn’t know whether to blame spring break or swiftly circulating variants of the coronavirus.
Broward has a known total of 219,792 cases and 2,755 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. The death tally includes 46 non-residents.
Commissioner Beam Furr said the county’s move to gradually loosen the rules is a “measured, rational approach.”
“It’s worth giving that a try.”
He said that with the exception of restaurants — where people have to remove their masks to eat — he’s seeing compliance of the county’s existing mandates, citing being asked to leave a supermarket himself when he accidentally forgot to bring a mask along.
Kouyou Buffet in Margate, a Japanese restaurant, was shut down for 24 hours last summer after inspectors said the buffet trays had to stay covered and only employees could serve the food.
“Trust me, every restaurant has the same problem, people come in without masks and say it’s their right, and we keep fighting with them,” the owner said. “But we have to follow the orders or we have trouble.”