Miami-Dade and Broward counties join the rest of the state Monday in the second phase of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ four-month effort to revive Florida’s economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The move, in part, is intended to allow public schools in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to plan for in-person instruction. But while many businesses and venues can start to plan for reopening, bars will remain closed, at least in Miami-Dade County.
“I will continue consulting with our medical experts to make sure the openings are done the right way,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said during a midday news conference with DeSantis at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Miami. “And I want to give time to those entertainment venues that qualify for opening at a limited capacity to get ready.”
Miami-Dade County Superintendent of Schools Alberto Carvalho said he expects an announcement before the end of the month on when parents will have a choice of sending students back to classrooms, where they will be required to wear face masks or keeping them in online learning.
Carvalho said a survey of parents found about 51 percent in support of sending their children to school for in-person instruction.
“Obviously, when they return, we will have in place all the safety and precautionary measures, with increased sanitation cycles, with isolation rooms, with a nurse in every school, with appropriate social distancing,” Carvalho said. “But I want to be clear, six feet of distance is probably not going to be possible in many schools.”
The Broward County School Board is expected to take up the issue of in-person instructions on Sept. 22.
When Palm Beach County moved into the second phase of DeSantis’ reopening efforts Sept. 8, the county was given a one-week delay, from Sept. 14 to Sept. 21, in reopening public school campuses.
Friday’s announcement by DeSantis allows entertainment venues, movie theaters, bowling alleys, arcades and other businesses to operate at 50 percent capacity.
Gimenez said reopening bars and craft breweries in other parts of the state is “fine, because they have very few cases of COVID-19.”
“We're still not out of the woods yet, but we're getting closer,” Gimenez said.
Late Thursday, Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears rescinded a June order that prevented onsite consumption of alcohol at bars. Starting Monday, bars and craft breweries will be able to operate at 50 percent of indoor occupancy, with people needing to be seated when served.
DeSantis was asked if he was rushing the South Florida reopening, but he said Miami-Dade’s positive COVID-19 test rate had dropped substantially since it had 20 percent daily averages in July. He said the rate had been under 10 percent for more than a month.
“We have a health crisis with the virus, but we also have health crises with a lot of other things that have gotten worse since this crisis with the virus began,” DeSantis said. “Mental health. Drug abuse. Missed cancer screenings. Missed medical. Heart. Stroke. People that didn't go in. That's very important. And then we also are saying, we're going to do best over the long term on this if we have a healthy, strong society. That means having a functioning economy. That means having a lot of things. But a school system is so important to so many communities that the cost of not having that are just so dramatic.”
DeSantis said hospitalizations in Miami-Dade have decreased by nearly 75 percent since the July peak, new admissions to hospitals for COVID-19 are down 82 percent, and people going to emergency rooms with COVID-19-like symptoms are down 80 percent.
DeSantis, who has been accelerating reopening efforts the past few weeks, also argued that similar concerns were expressed before schools reopened in other parts of the state.
“We've had very few cases compared to the number of students that have been in session,” DeSantis said. “We've had about 1.2 million students that are in-person learning. Obviously, when Miami comes, that's going to be a lot more. The number of positive tests that you've had over that time is such a minute part of that, that the school districts are handling it, you know, as they go.”
However, not every school district is releasing information regarding COVID-19 cases.
The Florida Education Association teachers union on Wednesday released a 30-second commercial asserting the need for transparency and claimed the state has imposed a gag order on some local health departments to prevent the release of COVID-19 data in schools.
“The governor and the education commissioner have been pressuring school districts and health departments to keep them from releasing relevant and important information about coronavirus in our schools,” union president Andrew Spar said in a news release with the ad. “Like any parent, I have a right to know what is happening in my child’s school.”
After the state was essentially shut down in late March and April to try to slow the spread of the virus, DeSantis initiated a first phase of reopening in early May that didn’t include Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Those counties have been hit hardest by the virus.
A month later, the rest of the state was moved into the second phase, which increased maximum occupancy inside restaurants and allowed tattoo shops, movie theaters and arcades to operate with limited occupancy.
Since March, the state Department of Health has reported 658,381 cases of COVID-19 in Florida. The virus has also been tied to the deaths of 12,502 Florida residents.
While the numbers have steadily increased, DeSantis has pushed to reopen the economy. In late August, DeSantis was in Miami Gardens to support plans to allow a limited number of fans into Hard Rock Stadium for University of Miami and Miami Dolphins football games.
The University of Miami hosted its first game Thursday night, with the Hurricanes defeating the University of Alabama-Birmingham, 31-14. The announced attendance of 8,153 was short of the 20 percent cap allowed at the 65,000-seat stadium.
“We're also happy to see the ‘U’ back in action, and we really appreciate that working out,” DeSantis said. “And we're glad that they were able to notch a victory. So, good on you guys.”