Florida reopens: DeSantis lifts remaining coronavirus restrictions

Bars and restaurants are no longer required to operate at less than full capacity, as Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order Friday removing all remaining restrictions on businesses because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But the executive order, which takes effect immediately, also prohibits local governments from closing businesses or collecting fines related to pandemic-related mandates, such as mask requirements.

“We are today moving into what we initially called phase 3,” DeSantis said during a press conference in St. Petersburg. “And what that’ll mean for the restaurants is there will not be limitations from the state of Florida.”

“We’re also saying in the state of Florida everybody has a right to work,” he added. “(Local governments) can do reasonable regulations but they can’t just say no.”

There are four major provisions of the order:

-It removes all remaining state-level restrictions on businesses, including on bars and restaurants, which were capped at 75% capacity in Phase 3 of DeSantis’ original reopening plan.

-It provides a general right to work and to operate a business. Local governments can limit and regulate businesses, but won’t be able to close businesses because of coronavirus concerns.

-Local governments won’t be able to prevent restaurants from operating at below 50% capacity. Under previous orders, local governments could go further than state-level restrictions, and counties in South Florida kept restaurants and bars closed after the state allowed them to reopen. Also, cities and counties won’t be able to impose any restrictions without an economic and health justification.

-Cities and counties can’t collect on any outstanding fines they issued as part of their pandemic response. The order, though, doesn’t compel local governments to refund anyone who has already paid a fine.

Seminole County’s emergency task force, made up of commission Chairman Jay Zembower, Emergency Management Director Alan Harris and Medical Director Todd Husty, said they would be meeting Friday to discuss how the new state order affects Seminole’s executive order, which requires individuals to wear masks in public and chronic violators to face a misdemeanor charge.

“We are reviewing our orders and waiting for the governor to issue written guidance,” said Ashley Moore, a spokeswoman for Seminole County.

One Seminole business owner, Oviedo Brewing Co.’s Vishal Chunilal, had mixed feelings about the decision. He said it was great to start getting back to pre-coronavirus numbers, but safety is more important.

“I look at my staff first and myself and my family,” Chunilal said.

He added he is waiting for the local government’s response before starting his plan.

Chunilal expects his brewery, which also offers food, will expand the number of people allowed inside in stages and won’t go directly to 100% capacity.

“We’ll have a plan of action to get to 100%, but it won’t be immediate,” Chunilal said.

Up the road, Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café in downtown Sanford plans to ease up to its full 665 seats, with owner Christina Hollerbach hoping to reach 100% capacity around March. It is operating with about 280 to 300 seats right now.

The German restaurant, which is now running with about 90 employees, needs to hire 15 to 30 people in the next six months, Hollerbach said.

Hollerbach’s was wrapping up an expansion with hundreds of new seats and a rooftop beer garden around when the pandemic started. The restaurant laid off more than 50 people in March while keeping nearly 50 others on the payroll, before eventually returning its staff to 90 employees.

Hollerbach added she does not expect masks, sanitizing or social distancing to go away immediately. “I’m glad the Governor is trusting restaurant owners to be responsible so that we can restore a good economy and bring jobs back,” Hollerbach said.

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