Florida takes hesitant step toward reopening amid outbreak
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Florida partially reopened Monday, allowing restaurants and shops in most of the state to open at 25% capacity in hopes of kick-starting the ailing economy after weeks of coronavirus -related shutdowns.
Business owners and customers reacted with emotions ranging from elation to trepidation. When longtime customer Ron Rogers walked through the doors of Shakers American Café in Orlando on Monday morning, waitress Jill Lawrence stood, brought her fingers to her mask-covered lips and blew him a kiss. She then threw her arms around herself in a self-hug.
“Hugs and kisses from far away,” Lawrence said. “You’re looking good, man!”
After weeks of not visiting Shakers, Rogers was ready for his favorite menu item: smoked salmon.
Hand sanitizers were installed at the entrance and by the bathroom of the diner, which gets its name from the hundreds of colorful salt and pepper shakers that line shelves on its walls. Employees were wearing face masks and rubber gloves and had their temperature taken with a laser thermometer before their shift. Papers printed with “Table Closed” were taped to green-topped tables that weren’t being used because of social distancing guidelines.
Florida’s Phase One reopening excludes Miami-Dade, Broward, or Palm Beach counties, where the outbreak has been worse and officials want more time to ensure the virus is under control.
Restaurants, stores, museums and libraries in the rest of the state were allowed to reopen at limited capacity Monday and elective surgeries were allowed to resume. Sports teams were allowed to resume play, but without spectators. Public schools, however, remain shut and students are participating in distance learning through the end of the school year.
In Orlando, Mayor Buddy Dyer said city officials would make it easier for businesses to operate under social distancing restrictions by allowing retail sales and outdoor restaurant seating in parking lots under farmers market-like tents. The city also will allow extra signage and banners for marketing, he said.
As of Monday, Florida had nearly 37,000 coronavirus cases, with nearly 1,400 deaths from COVID-19. Cases peaked in early April. Drive-thru testing sites were set up around the state, but capacity has outstripped demand in recent weeks — even after access was extended to any adult who thinks they may have been exposed.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has said the state meets White House criteria for a full Phase One reopening, but he wants to take limited steps to ensure the outbreak remains under control.
Asked if he would feel safe taking his wife to a restaurant or shopping, DeSantis said at a news conference in Tallahasee, “Absolutely. And here’s the thing: Throughout all this time, people have been going to Costco. They’ve been going to the grocery stores.”
“I think all these stores, all the restaurants, they’re going to be focused on safety,” he said.
In Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood, the 115-year-old Columbia Restaurant and its other locations and brands were not reopening right away, said company President Richard Gonzmart.
He said it seemed too soon and that the company has the financial wherewithal to wait a bit longer, even with 1,100 employees mostly on furlough. “Opening at 25% capacity, our restaurants can’t be successful. We need to be at about 80%,” Gonzmart said.
In St. Petersburg, Tony Loeffler, the owner of Atlas Body and Home, a men’s apparel and lifestyle shop in downtown, said he is reopening Tuesday.
“We’ve missed all of our customers for the last five weeks,” he said, adding that his store hasn’t received any financial support from state or federal money intended for small business. “We’re doing it with all the precautions that we can. I don’t think that Florida is ready, but I don’t know. We feel like we have to do this, even though we feel a little conflicted about it.”
On the Florida Panhandle, the Scenic 90 Cafe in Pensacola opened at 7 a.m. Monday with hungry regulars eager for shrimp crawfish savannah or the daily special chicken pot pie. The restaurant normally would have four or five servers but on Monday was down to two, said catering coordinator Lindsey Chadwell.
The staff wore gloves and masks and diners were seated at every other booth.
“We are pretty busy right now. It’s super exciting,” Chadwell said in a telephone interview. “We have a lot of our lunchtime regulars. They missed coming in and seeing us.”
In South Florida, a line of boaters waited as of 7 a.m. to get into the reopened Everglades National Park, with boats entering the water one at a time. The state park joined several local ones in South Florida that reopened over the past week.
In Miami Beach, however, authorities were going in a different direction Monday. One park was closed following a rash of warnings to parkgoers that they were failing to meet social distancing guidelines, police spokesman Ernesto Rodriguez said.
Anderson reported from Indian Rocks Beach. Associated Press reporters Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg and Freida Frisaro in Fort Lauderdale contributed to this report.