With coronavirus curve flat, governor says 'full phase one' begins Monday -- including gyms

It's been nearly two weeks since Florida slowly began reopening under the governor's three-phase plan to reopen Florida from the coronavirus shutdowns. Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis made the long-awaited announcement that gyms and fitness centers will be the next businesses allowed to reopen, while restaurants and stores can expand capacity.

"Today, we are going to move into, effective Monday, into a full phase one," the governor said in a Jacksonville press conference. "I think that this is appropriate given the progress that Florida has made."

The governor also said museums and libraries can reopen to 50-percent capacity, professional sports teams can gather without fans, and he invited amusement parks to submit plans to reopen.

In a surprising move to some, gyms were left out of the initial phase-one opening on May 4, then skipped again when salons were cleared to reopen this week. But the governor says the state's efforts to flatten the COVID-19 curve have been successful enough that limited indoor workouts can begin.

"This is a respiratory virus that tends to attack people who have health problems or are not in good physical condition. So don't we want people to stay in shape?" DeSantis continued.

Many Florida gyms began closing down in mid-March, even before the governor ordered them to close as non-essential businesses in his 'safer-at-home' order. In the meantime, owners have told FOX 13 they've been working on plans to reopen and how they'll be able to do that while keeping everyone safe and socially-distanced.

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“Great news! Awesome! We're ready,” exclaimed Rich Pond, owner of Crossfit Apogee in Apollo Beach.  "Here at this gym we've already prepared. We're spaced out 11 feet."

Sam Farina, owner of Crossfit Rebels in Clearwater, explained that each person in the gym will have their own station that's 6 feet away from others. Before and after workouts, workers will wipe down and sanitize the equipment. 

Farina also said workers will keep an record of which stations clients are using in the gym, so that if anyone does end up testing positive for COVID-19, they can contact trace and alert anyone who was working out with the same equipment.

“To sweat by each other and push through something that’s hard so that we can show each other that we can do it, not having that ability has made me a weaker person," Farina told FOX 13. 

Last week, Pinellas County saw a unique protest as gym owners did push-ups and squats in front of the county courthouse.

As of Thursday, the total number of known COVID-19 cases in Florida had reached 43,210 and the number of deaths had reached 1,875, according to the state Department of Health.

After two peaks in early and mid-April, the state’s curve has generally flattened over the last few weeks. Since April 18, the state has averaged just under 700 new cases per day. That’s down to a level that the health care system can handle, according to Gov. DeSantis.

“In terms of new cases, [there are] clearly fewer cases coming in, even with all the testing,” DeSantis said Friday, blaming many of the recent cases on prison outbreaks. "We never really rocketed high, like New Jersey or New York."

The governor's safer-at-home order ended May 4, kicking off phase one of the reopening plan, but in a more limited version than what the White House and his own task force said could be allowed. Now, the governor says indoor movie theaters are the only part of that plan that still cannot operate.

"I think the only thing we aren't doing in the president's guidelines is movie theaters," DeSantis said. "When you're in an enclosed indoor environment, the virus is just more transmittable. Of course, drive-through theaters are 100% fine."

Specifically, here’s what is now allowed, and not allowed, under phase one as of Monday, May 18:

- Restaurants can offer outdoor seating with 6-foot spacing between tables and indoor seating is limited to 50% capacity

- Retail stores can operate at 50% of indoor capacity

- Barbershops and hair salons can operate with 25% of indoor capacity

- Gyms can open to 50-percent capacity with proper social distancing and sanitizing

- Elective surgeries can resume

- No changes to closures for bars, nightclubs, and theaters

- Schools remain distance-learning only

- Visits to senior living facilities are still prohibited

- Some state parks are open again

- Pharmacists may administer COVID-19 tests

- Local governments may have more restrictive policies than the state

"Bars were not included in the phase one White House guidance," DeSantis noted, when asked Friday. "I didn't feel the need to jump on that."

The governor also said he wanted all staff to be tested for COVID-19 as part of the full phase-one plan. And he invited theme parks to submit plans to reopen, including target dates and specific details about how they would keep guests safe.

Theme parks are mentioned as possibly reopening in phase two of the plan, along with bars, nightclubs, vacation rentals, and sports venues.

DeSantis said, if county governments want to open vacation and short-term rentals, they can submit a request with a safety plan.

"We're telling counties if you want short-term rentals, you request it. If you tell me you're going to rent it out to people in New York City, I'll probably not approve it…It will be on a case-by-case basis."

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

- Bars, pubs, and nightclubs that derive more than 50% of sales from alcohol should operate at 50-percent of capacity with an emphasis on diminished standing-room capacity and prioritizing outdoor service. They should keep table 6 feet apart and restrict groups to 10 or fewer people. 

- Restaurants can increase indoor capacity to 75%, with appropriate social distancing still in place and tables 6 feet apart. Parties should not exceed 10.

- Retail stores can increase capacity to 75%. Signage should promote social distancing and cleaning protocols should be in place.

- Gyms and fitness centers can reopen at 75% capacity. Social distancing and sanitation protocols must be in place and patrons should be separated by 6 feet.

- Barbershops and salons can increase capacity to 75% with regular cleanings and social distancing in place. Employees and customers are advised to wear masks and other PPE.

- Large venues, like movie theaters, concert halls, auditoriums, bowling alleys, arcades, playhouses, and casinos, can reopen at no more than 75% capacity and with strict social distancing protocols. Parties cannot exceed 10.

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

- Theme parks may consider reopening with capacity limits, strict social distancing, and proper cleaning measures.

- 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.

- Vacation rentals can open and operate for in-state reservations only. Those traveling from other states or internationally cannot place rentals.

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

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 also did not specify when that might happen.

"Protecting the vulnerable is something that is not going to change as we continue to reopen Florida," the governor added Friday.