The state has lifted most COVID-19 capacity regulations, causing local leaders to readjust their approach to managing the health challenge.
On Friday, six months after Florida began implementing restrictions on activity to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the state would move into phase three of reopening and loosening most pandemic-inspired business regulations.
In addition to allowing businesses including restaurants, bars and gyms to operate at full capacity, the governor’s executive order establishes some prohibitions on local rules related to COVID-19. In the wake of DeSantis’s announcement, city and county officials have worked to sort out how the shift into phase three might affect local coronavirus guidelines.
City Attorney Robert Fournier said he didn’t see the governor’s order coming, but by Monday, he had provided some guidance to city officials regarding the state regulations. DeSantis suspended the collection of fines associated with COVID-19 regulations, which nullifies a segment of the city of Sarasota’s mask ordinance outlining penalties for violations.
The city later announced it would continue to provide education and encourage the public to wear masks, noting that it had not cited any individual for violations prior to the move to phase three.
The governor’s order did not mention anything about the state’s temporary remote meeting protocols allowing local governments to meet via videoconferencing software. Those protocols are set to expire at the end of the month, so unless DeSantis issues another order, the City Commission could be required to meet in-person Monday, Oct. 5 for the first time since March.
Fournier indicated the commission could discuss how it wants to handle local COVID-19 protocols under the new state order at its next meeting. There’s one provision in the phase three guidelines Fournier anticipated the city won’t take advantage of: DeSantis authorizes local governments to restrict restaurant capacity below 100% but above 50% only if that government can quantify the economic impact of the regulations and demonstrate why the restriction is necessary for public health.
“I don’t know how you would ever do it,” Fournier said. “I doubt anyone ever even attempts to, and I don’t know how you get the numbers or data to justify it even if you wanted to.”
In an email, a Sarasota County spokesperson said staff is reviewing how phase three of reopening will affect the county’s policies regarding public meetings, facilities and other operations that COVID-19 has affected.
Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch agreed with Fournier that she did not foresee the city attempting to limit business capacity while the state is in phase three. Ahearn-Koch said she was optimistic that the public would continue to take COVID-19 seriously and adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, including wearing masks and practicing social distancing.
Although Ahearn-Koch said she thought most people would exercise caution, she also wants the city to continue to emphasize the importance of following the directives health experts have issued. The rate of new COVID-19 cases in Sarasota County has fallen significantly from its peak this summer; the state reported an average of 37.9 new cases daily over the past seven days as compared to 201.7 the week of July 11-18.
Still, Ahearn-Koch said that increased activity associated with reopening introduces increased opportunity for spreading the virus. And she noted that, despite improving the numbers relative to July, Sarasota has not seen a sustained decline in COVID-19 cases recently. According to state data, the average daily testing positivity rate for new cases during the week of Sept. 22-28 was 3.60%, an increase from an average of 2.7% the week of Sept. 9-15.
“In the city, our numbers are not on a downward trajectory,” Ahearn-Koch said. “Citizens need to continue to do the things they’ve been doing to keep themselves and others safe in their community — now more than ever, actually.”
The move into phase three is drawing a variety of reactions from residents and business navigating fewer government regulations but a still-looming health threat in COVID-19.
When the state lifted an order closing bars Sept. 14, Shamrock Pub Owner Derek Anderson felt something of a sense of relief. He’d gone through a challenging half-year: Florida closed all bars in March and kept them closed even after other businesses were allowed to reopen. The state reopened bars at limited capacity in June as part of the move into phase two but then closed the businesses again later that month as COVID-19 case numbers began to spike statewide.
Although Shamrock can finally reopen again, Anderson’s problems aren’t completely behind him. Customers have been slow to return to the Ringling Boulevard bar. He’s had to adjust the interior seating to provide ample spacing. The pub is still working its way back up to staying open for standard business hours. He’s having serious conversations with staff about what the future of Shamrock looks like.
Still, he’s determined to make the best of a difficult situation.
“It’s like somebody cut your legs off, and you’re trying to stop the bleeding with a washcloth,” Anderson said. “But I don’t want to misconstrue — I’m optimistic, I’m confident, I’m hopeful. We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to make those washcloths work.”
Susan Moen, the owner of The Crystal Cave on Fruitville Road, also opened her business well after the state began to lift COVID-19 restrictions following April’s stay-at-home order. In her case, that was by choice. Moen kept her shop shut until August, acting cautiously because it’s a one-person operation, and she and her husband have breathing issues. When she did reopen, she started by offering curbside service only. When she finally let customers back in, she said they were understanding about adhering to the city’s mask regulations.
That changed the day after DeSantis’s phase three order, Moen said. She estimated about half of the customers who walked up to The Crystal Cave were not wearing masks.
“I saw a huge difference in attitude from Friday to Saturday,” Moen said. “I’m nervous.”
She contacted city officials with her concerns and shifted back to curbside service only. Fournier affirmed that businesses are still authorized to require masks even though the city cannot issue fines. Still, Moen said she was angry about what she perceived to be an increased ambivalence toward health guidelines among the public beginning last weekend.
Although the spread of the disease has slowed locally, she feared phase three of reopening could lead to serious problems in the coming weeks and months if people do not remain vigilant about taking protective measures.
“Nothing’s going to get better if everybody’s not on board,” Moen said.
Join the Neighborhood! Our 100% local content helps strengthen our communities by delivering news and information that is relevant to our readers. Support independent local journalism by joining the Observer's new membership program — The Newsies — a group of like-minded community citizens, like you. Be a Newsie.