Florida lifts Covid-19 restrictions on bars and restaurants, clearing the way for normal indoor dining

Restaurant industry leaders cheered the move, but some owners and workers aren’t ready to return to normal.

In a surprise announcement on Friday afternoon, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, lifted all coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses across the state, allowing bars and restaurants to run at full capacity for the first time since March.

The executive order, which became effective immediately, goes well beyond allowing restaurants to return to business as usual. In many cases, it will limit the ability of local officials to enact their own Covid-19 workplace protections. For instance, it forbids local governments from setting their own caps on indoor dining, unless they make formal health or economic justifications for restrictions between 50 and 100 percent. It also bars them from closing businesses for health concerns, should they see a spike in cases.

Besides ending statewide dining restrictions, the order additionally suspends the collection of coronavirus-related fines and penalties, rendering toothless local mandates for mask-wearing and social distancing. The moves are part of an effort to ensure “business certainty,” according to the order.

“When I got into the restaurant industry, I didn’t get into it to make life or death decisions.”

“We’re not closing anything going forward,” DeSantis said at a press conference. “You can’t just say ‘no.’ You can’t say ‘no’ after six months and just have people just twisting in the wind.”

Florida, which has more restaurants than any other state except California and Texas, joins Indiana as one of the first two states to lift caps on indoor dining during the pandemic. Since June, bars and restaurants in Florida had been limited to 50 percent of indoor seating capacity, with full capacity outdoors, with an additional physical distancing requirement. After the announcement, videos surfaced of bars and restaurants flooded with maskless guests.

“That is very concerning to me,” Anthony Fauci said on Monday, during an appearance on Good Morning America. “When you’re dealing with community spread, and you have the kind of congregate setting where people get together, particularly without masks, you’re really asking for trouble.” 

“When you’re dealing with community spread, and you have the kind of congregate setting where people get together without masks, you’re really asking for trouble.”

Florida has been an international hotspot for Covid-19, with more than 700,000 cases and 14,000 deaths during the pandemic. After a July surge, cases have been down in the state. But the overall positivity rate remains high, currently around 11 percent over the past 7 days, according to Johns Hopkins University. Transmission rates should be at or below 5 percent for at least 14 days before a state can safely reopen, according to the World Health Organization. 

Predictably, the restaurant industry cheered the order. In a press release, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, a trade group that represents the hospitality industry, noted that the pandemic has been “a crisis like we have never seen before,” and that bars and restaurants welcomed the “opportunity to get back to work.” A spokeswoman told The Counter that restaurants “will do all they can to keep their employees and guests safe.”

But others were more circumspect, and taken aback by the surprise order. A handful of owners contacted by The Counter said they were not yet ready to reopen at 100 percent capacity, and wanted to see if cases spiked with the loosening of restrictions, as they did earlier this summer, when the state went into its second reopening phase

“At the end of day, if I go bankrupt, I fold without killing anyone.”

“When I got into the restaurant industry, I didn’t get into it to make life or death decisions,” said Russell Andrade, the owner of Iberian Rooster, a two-story restaurant and nightclub in St. Petersburg. Last month, he reopened the 130-seat fine-dining establishment upstairs as a fast-casual bowl counter with 38 seats. He intends to wait another month before reopening at full capacity.

“We are not in a position where this decision was taken lightly,” he said, citing the ongoing costs of rent, utilities, insurance, and business loans. “But at the end of day, if I go bankrupt, I fold without killing anyone.”

Matt Slate, a bartender at Independent Bar and Cafe, also isn’t eager to see full crowds again. During the pandemic, the Tampa beergarden and venue shut down, before reopening as a sit-down establishment with table service and to-go lunches. It’s now open at half capacity, and Slate, who used to make between $800 and $1000 a week, has seen his earnings fall to $500 to $600.

“I would love to make that kind of money again, but do I think it’s safe to do so? No,” he said. “It’s a sacrifice. The pros outweigh the cons.”

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.