MIAMI (Reuters) – The governor of Florida, among the last to lock down his state against the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, announced on Wednesday he would permit a limited economic reopening next week while leaving restraints intact for the dense greater Miami area.
U.S. President Donald Trump listens to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speak about the coronavirus response during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 28, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Florida became the latest of about a dozen states forging ahead to ease crippling restrictions on business activity without having vastly expanded virus testing and other safeguards in place, as recommended by White House guidelines on April 16.
Under his phase-one plan for relaxing mandatory business closures imposed four weeks ago, Governor Ron DeSantis said retail merchants and restaurants could welcome customers back inside their establishments starting Monday, with indoor patronage limited to 25% of capacity.
Eateries may also reopen outdoor seating with appropriate social distancing, and medical practices can resume elective surgeries and procedures, DeSantis, the Republican governor of a key electoral swing state, said at a news conference.
But movie theaters, bars and fitness clubs will remain shuttered for the time being, he said.
The governor’s plan also left existing restrictions in place across the South Florida metropolitan region consisting of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties – the three most highly populated in the state. They collectively account for nearly a third of Florida’s 21.3 million residents.
The announcement came as U.S. deaths from the novel coronavirus topped 60,000 on Wednesday – eclipsing the number of American lives lost during the Vietnam war – and the outbreak will soon be deadlier than any influenza season since 1967, according to a Reuters tally.
DeSantis had drawn criticism for waiting until April 2 to clamp down on commerce – after most other states had already done so – in part because of Florida’s high proportion of elderly residents – more than a fifth are age 65 and over – who are especially vulnerable to the virus.
The governor and other state and local authorities also came under fire for failing to impose social-distancing requirements on college students who thronged Florida beach resorts on their annual “spring break” pilgrimage in March, as the coronavirus outbreak was gaining steam.
FLORIDA VS. NEW JERSEY
But Florida has avoided the worst of the health crisis seen in other states such as New York and New Jersey, a contrast DeSantis noted in unveiling his reopening strategy.
“Saying Florida was going to be like New Jersey was wrong,” the governor said.
He unveiled his plan a day after visiting Washington to consult with President Donald Trump, a fellow Republican, and members of the White House task force overseeing the federal response to the pandemic.
The Republican governor of a neighboring Southern state, Brian Kemp of Georgia, appeared to have been encouraged by Trump earlier this month to move ahead with easing restrictions in his state only to be criticized by the president afterward for doing so.
Trump, who had staked his November re-election bid on a robust U.S. economy before the pandemic struck, had agitated for a swift reopening of commerce for weeks, after first downplaying the severity of the health threat the coronavirus posed.
With millions of Americans forced out of work by stay-at-home orders and mandatory business closures imposed across the country over the past five weeks, pressure has been mounting on governors to ease restrictions as the outbreak appeared to be waning in some regions.
Public health experts have urged caution, saying a rollback of social distancing without large-scale virus testing or the means to trace close contacts of infected individuals could trigger a second wave of infections.
“Part of our strategy in phase one is to expand testing,” DeSantis said, adding that Florida would increase walk-up virus screening sites to 11 throughout the state. “We want to be able to spot trends in the under-served communities.”
But Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo criticized the governor’s plan as lacking details on how he would quickly increase the state’s virus screening, which Rizzo said ranked 22nd in COVID-19 tests per capita among all 50 U.S. states.
“More than 1,000 Floridians have died in this pandemic, but you wouldn’t know it listening to Governor DeSantis’ indignant press conference today,” she said.
Other Florida Democrats questioned why the governor made no mention of the state’s beleaguered unemployment system that collapsed as hundreds of thousands of residents sought benefits in the early days of the pandemic lockdown.
“It feels like we’re opening up because the president needs it, that there’s some sort of need to stick together in the GOP,” said Cynthia Busch, chair of the Broward County Democratic Party.
Florida Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, the state’s highest-ranking elected Democrat, took a more conciliatory tone toward the DeSantis plan, saying she was “encouraged by this cautious approach.”
Reporting by Zach Fagenson in Miami; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani, Barbara Goldberg and Jessica Resnick-Ault in New York and Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Sonya Hepinstall and Steve Gorman; Editing by Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman