Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday took far-reaching actions to combat the coronavirus as he ordered bars and nightclubs to close for the next month and as state universities moved to hold online classes for the rest of the spring.
DeSantis, who has allowed local officials to take the lead on many restrictions stemming from the deadly virus, did not order restaurants to shut down and did not close the state’s beaches.
Instead, DeSantis said he was going to issue executive orders outlining minimum requirements for restaurants and beaches, based on recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Restaurants, the governor said, will be required to screen their staff members before allowing them to work. And while DeSantis is encouraging people to order take-out meals, restaurants will be allowed to offer dining options so long as they operate at 50 percent capacity where tables can be spread at least six feet apart.
“This is the floor for Florida for the foreseeable future,” DeSantis said, adding he expected municipalities such as Miami to pass stricter regulations. “We support the efforts that the locals are doing. This is a virus that is affecting the whole state, but I think it affects different communities differently. The response may not always be the same on every little thing. We have a number of counties that have not had a single case. And so I feel this makes the most sense.”
Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association President and CEO Carol Dover in a statement thanked DeSantis for what she called a “thoughtful and measured approach” as cases of the virus spread across the state and country.
“He has shown great support for Florida’s restaurants. Permitting them to remain open will allow local businesses to continue to operate and provide employment while also providing an additional resource for consumer demand,” she said.
The news came as the number of COVID-19 cases in Florida — and the death toll — continued to rise.
DeSantis said a 77-year old resident of a Broward County assisted living facility died Monday. That brought to six the total number of COVID-19 deaths in the state.
Because the highly contagious virus is most deadly to seniors, the state banned visitation at long-term care facilities in Broward County last week. As the virus continued to spread, the ban was extended statewide.
“There’s an investigation under way, the Department of Health sent a strike team last evening upon becoming aware of the individual’s positive test result and then worked through the night to check on every other member of the facilities,” DeSantis said. “So all individuals at the facilities are being isolated and evaluated.”
In all, Florida had 192 cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday morning. That figure includes four University of Florida students.
The state last week ordered universities to shift to online classes and tell students to stay away from campuses for at least two weeks. But the moves Tuesday went further, with university-system officials saying all universities will use online classes for the rest of the spring semester.
The university system’s Board of Governors also said schools should “consider using remote instruction for the early summer terms,” although it is not required.
In addition, the 12 state universities will cancel May graduation ceremonies, according to a statement released by the board.
“Instead, each university is directed to develop an alternate schedule or method of delivery,” the statement said.
DeSantis said the shift to online classes for the rest of the spring is meant to push students to leave campus and go home.
“One of the things we’ve noticed is the universities being with the spring break, a lot of students have just been congregating at the universities and going out and doing things there, and that is not something that we want,” the governor told reporters.
DeSantis said he called Board of Governors Chairman Syd Kitson on Tuesday morning before deciding to recommend that all universities move to online classes.
“We think that will be safer for everybody, and we think the universities are equipped to handle the remote learning,” the governor said.
The move also came after the four University of Florida students tested positive for the coronavirus. A few students traveled to “hot spots” in the U.S. and one student had studied abroad, DeSantis said.
UF officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the students’ positive diagnoses.
But in a statement on Twitter, UF told students that classes would be online for the rest of the semester and urged them to go back home “if possible.” The school also “strongly encouraged” employees to work remotely.
Florida State University is prepared to finish the spring semester through distance learning as directed, university officials said in a statement Tuesday.