Miami Beach suspends COVID orders, announces return of in-person commission meetings

Two days after Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all local COVID-19 restrictions suspended, Miami Beach announced Wednesday it had canceled its remaining emergency measures — including mask requirements at businesses, a ban on retail alcohol sales after 10 p.m. and room occupancy limits for short-term rentals.

In a memo, City Manager Alina T. Hudak wrote that she does not plan to impose any new emergency measures, but would retain the city’s declaration of a state of emergency to preserve its eligibility for federal reimbursements.

“Even though we are suspending our Emergency Order, it’s in everyone’s best interest to continue to wear masks and maintain social distancing,” she later said in a statement. “We have made great strides in our fight against COVID-19, but we have not yet reached the finish line.”

Hudak did not say whether DeSantis’ order will impact the pandemic-era closure of Ocean Drive to vehicular traffic, but Commissioner Michael Góngora told the Miami Herald that the city’s legal staff advised him that the road would remain closed as part of the city’s outdoor restaurant expansion program.

“Although the idea came about because of the pandemic, the city has the power regardless to expand restaurants into streets and walkways,” Góngora said.

Hudak also wrote in the memo that the City Commission would return to in-person meetings after more than a year of Zoom-based, virtual meetings. Members of the public will be able to participate in Wednesday’s meeting at the commission chambers in City Hall, although the city is encouraging that they participate virtually over Zoom.

Commissioners will physically attend the meeting and be separated by transparent dividers to limit contact with each other, a spokeswoman said. It’s unclear if masks will be mandated at the 9 a.m. meeting, which will include the swearing-in of Hudak as the new city manager.

“At a minimum, members of the public are strongly encouraged to wear facial coverings and observe social distancing, consistent with CDC guidance to limit the spread of COVID-19,” the meeting notice states.

Góngora said he is excited to return to in-person meetings so residents can once again address their elected leaders face to face. When participating on Zoom, residents cannot appear over video and face more strict time restrictions for public comment, Góngora said.

“I always look forward to seeing them,” he said.

Commissioner Ricky Arriola, an early critic of the city’s COVID restrictions, said in an interview that he felt grateful that DeSantis forced local governments to suspend their emergency orders. He said some of the measures the city took during the pandemic, like closing parks and exercise equipment, were more political than scientific.

“I’m all for sensible regulations to keep the public safe, but most of our decisions have lacked much common sense,” he said.

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