Customers carry take out orders from Groovy’s Pizza and Bar in Miami on March 18, after the city closed restaurants to all but takeout orders. Now the governor is reopening them to limited service. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Gov. Ron DeSantis would feel “100 percent comfortable” taking his wife and three kids to a restaurant operating within the COVID-19 public safety guidelines that took effect this week, even as infections and deaths are rising in Florida.
“Partially because I know that my kids, fortunately, are in an extremely low risk group. All of our kids are, unless you have a kid who has a serious condition,” the governor said during a news conference in Sarasota.
In contrast, the Spanish Flu that began in 1918 killed school-aged children and young adults of military age, he said.
“Obviously, my wife and I are in less risky groups. So, I have no problem doing it. I have no problem abiding by the safety [guidelines]. I have no problem keeping the social distance. I know the restaurants want to do it. And I think that’s the way it’s going to go,” DeSantis said.
“We haven’t had a lot of time to get out of the house even apart from this because we’ve got a newborn daughter and I’ve got two rambunctious kids on top of that. But we are going to go [to] some of the places in Tallahassee and do that. We need all of these small business folks, particularly the mom-and-pop restaurants. These are really important parts of the community,” he added.
“We have ingenuity as a people. We have the ability to figure things out. You have a responsibility to get to ‘Yes’ so that people can get back on their feet and conduct their businesses.”
As of Monday, DeSantis is allowing restaurants to serve customers in outdoors seating areas and provide indoor service at 25 percent capacity under Phase 1 of his plan to gradually lift the stay-home order he signed in early April. Social distancing rules still apply.
Not all restaurants will decide to open immediately and owners will have to make hiring decisions and make sure staffers are safe. Meanwhile, residents will have to make their own decisions about going into a restaurant while the coronavirus pandemic continues. Some people may not feel comfortable but others, like DeSantis and his family, will.
The more relaxed rules, which also apply to some state parks, museums, libraries, retail stores, and non-emergency surgery. He’s hinted he might soon allow personal services businesses including hair dressers to reopen. Stricter protections remain in hard-hit Southeast Florida.
“I’m not saying they couldn’t do more than 25 percent in a safe way. I think they can, but we looked at kind of what folks were doing, and we wanted to just be very measured about it,” he said of restaurants.
He imagined that reopening under those circumstances might not be worth it to some restaurants, which while closed to sit-down customers he has allowed to continue take-out and curbside sales of food and alcohol.
“I think that’s been pretty popular. We’re probably going to keep that going. Maybe we’ll have the Legislature change the law on that.”
He described the gradual reopening as “kind of a baby step.”
“What I want people to do is go in, feel safe, understand that you can do it. All the restaurants are going to be very cognizant about safety. And I know a lot of the patrons are going to be cognizant about safety as well.”
The state has particularly emphasized protecting the elderly and people with medical conditions that render them more likely to die from COVID-19. However, even people in the governor’s age group have died from the disease.
The latest state data show that 203 children through age 4 have been infected with coronavirus and 13 have been hospitalized, but none have died. The governor himself is 41; within the 35-44 age group the records reflect 5,493 infections, 534 hospitalizations, and 27 deaths.
And The New York Times and other publications are reporting about an outbreak of cardiac and vascular problems among children aged two to 15 with coronavirus infections.
Overall, the Florida Department of Health reported on Tuesday, 37,439 COVID-19 infections and 1,471 deaths. In both measures, the numbers increased from Monday.
DeSantis was in Sarasota visiting a COVID testing site and discussed a wide range of issues with reporters, including people with mental health or substance abuse problems who are suffering from virus-forced job losses and social isolation.
He announced that the state will lift limits on behavioral health treatment under Medicaid and streamline access to treatment. The target of these services will be adults suffering mental illness and substance abuse.
“These populations are not discussed as frequently,” the governor said. But they “do have increased stress, pressure, and anxiety caused by this emergency, particularly with the mitigation measures.”
First Lady Casey DeSantis has been touring the state leading workshops about these problems, the governor noted.
“Given the effect COVID-19 may have on mental health, behavioral health services such as individual and family therapy sessions or access to medications should not be limited,” he said.
DeSantis listed equipment the state has supplied to health workers in a “massive logistics operation” — 22.5 million masks, nearly 10 million gloves, 1.6 million face shields, 1 million shoe covers, 450,000 gowns, 200,000 containers of hand sanitizer, 85,000 goggles, and 38,000 coveralls.
“It seems like the supply chain is starting to work a little bit better than six weeks ago. But a lot of this stuff is still done in China. The antibody tests we had were sitting in China and we had a tough time getting them out of China,” he said.
“One of the things we need to do with this whole pandemic is understand [that] all this stuff should be made in the United States, not made in China. We don’t want our health destiny to be resting in the hands of a communist dictatorship.”
Throw in a hurricane
With hurricane season approaching on June 1, the state plans to lay away an additional 10 million masks in the event a storm threatens the state, plus 12 million N95 protective masks over the next year, director of emergency management Jared Moskowitz said.
Plans also call for more “non-congregate” sheltering rather than the “mass congregate” variety — meaning less shoving masses of people into, say, school gymnasiums, Moskowitz said.
State officials are working with the federal government on contingency planning.
“Are we going to have COVID-only shelters? How are we going to do evacuations? How are we going to limit evacuations — maybe have stay-at-home orders for people who live in facilities that are built to a certain hurricane code based on the hurricane that is approaching,” Moskowitz said.
“All of these options are on the table.”
DeSantis addressed questions about Florida’s dysfunctional unemployment compensation web browser, which has frustrated thousands of people who’ve lost jobs following his early April stay-home order.
He called upon the state inspector general on Monday to investigate the contracts behind that system. On Tuesday, he gave a hint about the bureaucratic problems he found.
“When this started, we knew there was going to be a crush. I told them, ‘Get people. We need more call centers. We need more people.’ And they were like, ‘Well, it’s going to take three weeks to train people.’ And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It shouldn’t be that hard.”
He described how he directed applicants to the Department of Economic Opportunity’s website at the suggestion of officials there. only to find they hadn’t tested the site in advance of a predictable wave of applications.
Since then, the governor has shifted 2,000 employees from other agencies and opened five call centers to help sort through the applications.
As of Tuesday, the state had paid 478,666 claims worth nearly $980 million.
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