By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Bars, tattoo shops and movie theaters can partially reopen Friday in most of the state, as Gov. Ron DeSantis moves into the second phase of his plan to revive the economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
DeSantis, who has promoted a three-phase reopening plan, said Wednesday the state would “inch” into the second phase “in a way that’s very, very measured.”
The announcement covers 64 of the state’s 67 counties and came after the virus pushed the state’s unemployment rate to 12.9 percent in April, representing an estimated 1.218 million Floridians qualifying as unemployed. DeSantis appeared at Universal Orlando, where passholders started to be allowed into the theme park Wednesday in advance of a public opening on Friday.
“Now, the virus isn’t gone. I think that we’re testing a lot. We are identifying cases, particularly in prisons, amongst agriculture workers, amongst areas where you have a lot of congregation, close quarters for a long period of time,” DeSantis said. “And so we’re going to continue to keep an eye on that, continue to test in those areas. But I think we have an opportunity to continue to move forward in a safe, smart, step-by-step approach, and I think it gets more people in Florida more opportunities.”
An order DeSantis signed Wednesday also allows personal services, inducing tattooing, body piercing, acupuncture, tanning and massage operations, to operate with safety guidelines from the state Department of Health.
The order continues to advise seniors and people with significant underlying medical conditions to avoid crowds and to take measures to limit the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward counties, which have been hit hardest by the respiratory disease, were not included in the changes announced Wednesday, similar to the way they were initially left out of the first phase of the reopening. They will have to individually request to be moved into the second phase.
The first phase started on May 4 by allowing restaurants and retail businesses to open at 25 percent indoor occupancy and for medical facilities to again schedule elective surgeries. Gyms, barbershops and hair salons joined the reopening in the following weeks, with the South Florida counties also being included.
Under the second phase, bars will be able to operate with table service and no barstools, with indoor occupancy at 50 percent and unlimited seating outdoors. Employees aren’t figured into the 50 percent calculation.
“So, basically, outdoor seating with social distance, a certain amount indoors but you’re seated to get served,” DeSantis said. “I mean, people go enjoy having a drink, it’s fine. We want to kind of not have huge crowds piling in.”
Calls have been increasing for DeSantis to reopen bars, which include nightclubs and social clubs. Among the requests have come from clubs that serve military veterans, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and AMVETS.
Okeechobee County Commissioner Terry Burroughs said the clubs serve a critical need in the community as “that’s the only meal that those veterans a lot of times get.”
Restaurants that have been operating under similar seating guidelines will now be allowed to have people seated in bar areas.
DeSantis included bowling alleys and pari-mutuels in Wednesday’s order, even though some have already reopened.
Pari-mutuels that have remained closed must get local approval before the state will sign off, DeSantis noted.
“We just want to make sure that there’s a plan and that people are adhering to the necessary safety protocols,” DeSantis said.
Operating at 50 percent capacity, the pari-mutuel facility bestbet Jacksonville opened its doors on May 22, and poker rooms in Orange City and Daytona Beach followed on Memorial Day, all with the approval of local governments.
DeSantis has continued to stray from the recommendations of his own Re-Open Florida Task Force, which was dominated by local officials, leaders of lobbying groups and heads of large businesses.
The task force had recommended 50-percent capacity for restaurants at the start of Phase I, with movie theaters, concert halls, bowling alleys, auditoriums and casinos being allowed to operate at 75 percent capacity in Phase II.
Movie theaters and bowling alleys will be at 50 percent capacity under the start of DeSantis’ second phase.
DeSantis in mid-May allowed vacation rentals to house guests again, if counties submitted plans that the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation approved.
More than 50 counties have since received the go-ahead, with the majority of the county-approved plans not restricting vacation rentals to Florida residents.
Under the task force proposal, Phase III would allow local governments to hold in-person meetings while bars, gyms, restaurants and nightclubs would be able to operate at full capacity.
Theme parks could resume normal operations with “limited social distancing protocols,” and vulnerable people could “resume public interactions while practicing social distancing.”
Last week, the state gave approval for major theme parks to reopen, with Universal Orlando leading the way. SeaWorld is expected to reopen on June 11. Disney is set to open the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom on July 11 and reopen Epcot and Hollywood Studios on July 15, according to DisneyParks.com. Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground will begin to reopen on June 22.
— News Service senior writer Dara Kam contributed to this report.