First phase of plan to reopen Florida will start Monday, governor says

Florida will gradually lift coronavirus lockdowns in several phases over the next few weeks, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Wednesday, though parts of the state will reopen more slowly than others.

“Today, Florida will take a step – small, deliberate, methodical, and based on consultation with some of our greatest physicians – towards a more hopeful future,” DeSantis said. “We do have hope. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The first phase of the reopening plan will start Monday, allowing limited reopening of stores and restaurants everywhere except the hardest-hit counties of Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach.

Capacity for retail stores and dine-in restaurants will be limited to 25 percent, more conservative than the 50-percent threshold in neighboring Georgia, which began reopening last week.

The governor did not set a date for the next phase of reopening, instead opting to take a wait-and-see approach to how the state fares during the first phase.

DeSantis stressed the importance of social distancing and continued testing in the first phase, but sought to convey a sense that the state was committed to moving forward.

“The only thing we have to fear is letting fear overwhelm our sense of purpose and determination,” he offered.

The reopening plan follows 10 days of meetings by the governor’s task force to reopen the state. The group of CEOs, top Republicans, and other economic advisors held several topic-driven conference calls to guide the strategy.

Accoridng to the governor, bars will remain closed.  Hairdressers and barbers are still not allowed to return to work, and movie theaters will remain shuttered. Distance learning continues for students.  Visitors to nursing homes and long-term care facilities are still banned, although the governor said some exceptions could be made for visitors who’ve been tested first.  Hospitals may resume elective surgeries but must maintain capacity in the event of an unexpected surge of patients. 

PHASE ONE:

- Restaurants can offer outdoor seating with 6-foot spacing between tables and indoor seating at 25-percent capacity

- Retail can operate at 25-percent of indoor capacity

- Elective surgeries can resume

- No changes for bars, gyms, and personal services (like salons)

- Schools remain distance-learning only

-Visits to senior living facilities still prohibited

Phase one also includes guidance to avoid socializing in groups of more than 10, while face coverings are recommended in all face-to-face interactions.

MORE: What is allowed under phase one of the governor's plan to reopen Florida?

“The only thing we have to fear is letting fear overwhelm our sense of purpose and determination."

— Gov. Ron DeSantis

The governor’s announcement came one day before his ‘safer-at-home’ order is due to expire. The state has been locked down for a month, with only “essential” trips and jobs allowed.

Florida trailed most states in issuing a stay-at-home order. DeSantis rolled out restrictions in a piecemeal way, such as closing bars and prohibiting non-essential, elective surgeries in March, but waited until April 1 to announce his statewide safer-at-home order.

He defended that decision during Tuesday’s meeting at the White House.

“You look at some of the most draconian orders that have been issued in some of these states and you compare Florida, in terms of our hospitalizations per 100,000, in terms of our fatalities per 100,000. I mean you go from DC, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio -- you name it, Florida has done better,” DeSantis said. “Everyone in the media was saying Florida was going to be like New York or Italy, and that has not happened.”

As of Wednesday, Florida had 33,193 known cases of coronavirus and 1,218 deaths out of 21-million residents. But after two peaks in early and mid-April, the state’s curve has generally flattened over the last two weeks.

Since April 18, the state has averaged just under 750 new cases per day. That’s down to a level that the health care system can handle, according to the governor.

With most of Florida’s cases concentrated in South Florida, many Bay Area counties have been waiting to see what the governor would suggest, even as they slowly began lifting some of their own restrictions. Most local beaches have reopened or will soon reopen, and the associated restaurants and shops have been eager to follow suit.

RELATED: What Florida beaches are open?

It's not yet clear if the governor's plan will reduce the number of furloughed and unemployed workers across the state. Florida’s unemployment application system was overwhelmed by the crush of new applicants, crashing the computer system and frustrating thousands of newly unemployed.

Steps to fix the system, which included launching an entirely new application site, did little to ease the backlog of applications.

The governor did not describe what the second phase of his plan would look like but said each phase should last a matter of weeks, not months. 

He added that Florida “did not ask for this” and blamed it “largely on the malfeasance of the Chinese Communist party.”  He said Florida is in the process of building a new foundation that is “safe, healthy, and free.”