By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Gyms and fitness centers can start to reopen Monday and restaurants can seat more customers, as Gov. Ron DeSantis continued Friday to take “small steps” with his economic recovery plans amid the coronavirus pandemic.
DeSantis said restaurants on Monday can expand their indoor seating to accommodate 50 percent occupancy, after being limited to 25 percent occupancy since May 4. Retail stores also will be able to go to 50 percent occupancy — moves Democrats cautioned need to come with more available testing for the virus.
Gyms and fitness centers will be allowed to get back to business after being shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the deadly respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. DeSantis urged people to take precautions as they work out.
“If you’re inside, make sure you’re doing the social distance and then sanitize the machines and surfaces after use,” DeSantis said during a news conference at Ascension St. Vincent’s Riverside Hospital Clinic in Jacksonville. “I mean, that should be happening anyways. I mean, if you’re sweating on the dip bar, clean the dip bar when you’re done doing dips.”
Also as part of DeSantis’ announcement Friday, local governments can reopen libraries and museums with limited capacity, and they can work with amusement-park operators and short-term rental owners to submit reopening plans to the state.
The closure of theme parks in mid-March has been a major hit to Florida’s economy and tax revenues.
“They should identify the date certain that they believe that they could resume safe operations,” DeSantis said. “They have to provide how they’re going to do it, how they’re going to accommodate the guests, how they’re going to protect the staff, and then they need to have an endorsement from the relevant official in their locality.”
Movie theaters and bars, meanwhile, will remain closed.
DeSantis said he’s working on plans to open summer youth programs and schools, saying the virus tends to attack people who have underlying health conditions or who aren’t in good physical condition. He said Wednesday that plans were being devised for youth sports programs.
“I would say the experience in Florida has been very, very low risk for minors, which I think is a really, really good thing,” DeSantis said. “And I’ve said many times, I would have no problem with my kids playing with other kids or doing that, because I just view them as a low-risk environment. I think there’s a whole bunch of other risks that are more significant that parents happily accept every single day.”
Friday’s announcement was an additional part of a first phase of economic reopening that began May 4. That phase expanded at the start of this week to include allowing barber shops and salons to reopen and to include Palm Beach County, which had been initially left out.
On Thursday, DeSantis included Miami-Dade and Broward counties in the reopening efforts. Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward have the largest numbers of COVID-19 cases in the state.
While many Florida businesses started to reduce services and close their doors in mid-March, the state has been on a semi-lockdown since DeSantis issued stay-at-home orders for people and “non-essential” businesses on April 1.
Democratic lawmakers warned Friday that plunging into more reopening without adequate COVID-19 testing being available would use Floridians as economic “guinea pigs.”
“I think we’re sort of shooting in the dark here,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, while at the Old Capitol on Friday. “Because without testing, without much more significant testing of more Floridians, it’s going to be hard for us to make a determination that we’re doing this safely and effectively.”
DeSantis said the state will continue to monitor and prepare for any outbreaks or resurgences of the virus. But while research on a vaccine continues, he said, “everyone should recognize that you will never get to a point where you can just say it’s gone.”
As of Thursday, the Florida Department of Health reported the state had 43,210 cases of the coronavirus and 1,875 deaths, including 808 new cases and 48 deaths added since Wednesday.
Democratic legislators argued Friday they’re ready to go back to work in a special session to address problems in the unemployment system and the economic impacts of the virus on the state’s budget, as they’re seeing reports that the budget shortfall could reach as much as $10 billion.
But they contend DeSantis and his business allies are rushing the phased reopening.
“Clearly, we do need to begin to look at opening,” Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said. “But we don’t need to do it too soon, because we’re just got to make it more difficult. This experiment that the governor is harping upon, this experiment is going to utilize the people of Florida as the subject like guinea pigs.”
Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, expressed concerns about workers at bars, Central Florida theme parks and other high-volume businesses if they are reopened.
“Imagine the hundreds and thousands of people going there. How are you going to control them? How are you going to safeguard your employees?” Torres said.