Florida 'phase two' begins today, despite increase in COVID-19 infection rate

Another round of businesses are cleared to reopen today amid the coronavirus pandemic, including bars, movie theaters, and even concert halls. But some local officials are wondering if it’s too soon.

Starting today, most of the state is moving into phase two of restarting Florida’s economy.  But on the heels of large protests in Tampa and St. Pete, plus the Memorial Day holiday, Hillsborough County leaders are sounding the alarm about an increase of COVID-19 cases. 

Over the last few weeks, there's been an upward trend in infections across the state and the county.

Since phase one of reopening Florida began a month ago, the state has averaged roughly 700 new coronavirus cases a day.  But over the last two days, there's been a spike – 1,300 Wednesday, then 1,400 Thursday, and now 1,300 on Friday – marking some of the largest single-day counts since the epidemic began. 

Florida resident cases in orange; Florida resident deaths in gray. Source: Fla. Dept. of Health.

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Public health officials are linking the increases to the busy Memorial Day holiday as the CDC director calls nationwide protests – including those in Tampa Bay – a potential seeding event for coronavirus. 

FOX 13's Dr. Jo says the virus can thrive in a protest-environment, where social distancing is non-existent. 

“I was very concerned. You have individuals who are in close proximity; they are speaking to one another. And even though they are outdoors and we are hoping that being outdoors may decrease risk, unfortunately they were in such close proximity it would really not negate all of that risk,” she explained.

In Hillsborough County, there's been an increase of 450 cases over the last week – including 100 cases reported Thursday – causing concern among county EPG members. 

The number of COVID-19 deaths reported by the state appears to be trending down, but reporting delays can make that statistic less accurate over the more recent time period.

The governor also points out that there’s been about a 50% reduction in the number of ICU hospitalizations since the state reached its peak in mid-April, and a 65% reduction in ventilator use. 

Sixty-four of Florida’s counties are moving ahead with phase two, which sees bars, theaters, and tattoo shops reopening. The three hardest-hit counties in South Florida are still on phase one.

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Here's what's allowed as Florida enters phase two, based on the governor’s comments and his previously released outline:

- Bars and pubs that derive more than 50 percent of sales from alcohol should operate at 50 percent of capacity inside but 100 percent outside. They should keep tables 6 feet apart and restrict groups to 10 or fewer people. Patrons may only receive service if seated.

- Tattoo shops, massage parlors, tanning salons, and other personal services business may reopen within the guidance of the Department of Health.

- Restaurant bar-top seating is again permitted, with social distancing.

- Retail stores can increase capacity to 100 percent. Signage should promote social distancing and cleaning protocols should be in place.

- Gyms and fitness centers can increase capacity to 100 percent. Social distancing and sanitation protocols must be in place and patrons should be separated by 6 feet.

- Large venues, like movie theaters, concert halls, auditoriums, bowling alleys, arcades, playhouses, and casinos, can reopen at no more than 50-percent capacity and with strict social distancing protocols. Parties cannot exceed 10.

- Large spectator sporting events should limit venue occupancy to 50 percent and use strict social distancing. 

- Public beaches will be fully open.

- State parks will be open during the day but overnight accommodations will remain closed. Large activities and events are not permitted.

- Individuals can resume non-essential travel.

- All employers should continue to encourage teleworking while plans to implement employees back to work begin. However, all employers are advised to screen employees before they return to work for COVID-19 symptoms. If practical, take the temperature of each employee.

- Local government meetings can resume with no more than 50 people in attendance.

The governor's office said nightclubs were purposefully excluded from the phase two reopening because they typically have limited seating.

Phase three, the final part of the plan, would be a lifting of nearly all restrictions in Florida, with a continued focus on vulnerable populations. The governor did not specify when that might happen.