Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida lifted state restrictions for restaurants and many other businesses on Friday as the state moved into the next reopening phase.
Mr. DeSantis, a Republican and avid supporter of President Trump who spoke at the president’s rally in Jacksonville on Thursday, signed the order, allowing restaurants and many other businesses as soon as Friday afternoon to operate at full capacity as part of Phase 3 of his administration’s reopening plan.
“We’re not closing anything going forward,” the governor said at a midday news conference in St. Petersburg.
County governments are allowed to limit capacity but not by more than 50 percent, Mr. DeSantis said — a new restriction on local control.
“I think this will be very, very important to the industry,” Mr. DeSantis said, calling the wholesale shuttering of restaurants in particular to be unacceptable. “You can’t say no after six months and just have people twisting in the wind.”
Mr. DeSantis refused to mandate mask usage in the state, insisting that such a decision should be left up to local governments. Yet his administration has increasingly stepped in to prevent counties from imposing more stringent virus restrictions. Many of Florida’s largest counties are run by Democrats.
In a statement, the state’s Democratic Party chair, Terrie Rizzo, took issue with Mr. DeSantis restricting local governments from “taking evidence-based measures to protect their communities.”
“We all desperately want things to return back to normal, but that can’t happen when DeSantis and Trump have no plan to get us out of this public health crisis,” she said.
Under the state’s reopening plan, Phase 3 allows for bars and nightclubs to operate at full capacity “with limited social distancing protocols.” It was unclear immediately how the order would affect Miami-Dade County, the county hardest-hit by the virus, which has kept bars and nightclubs closed since March. The county’s mayor had said he hoped to allow for some operation with restrictions such as table service only; the governor’s order prohibits the closure of any business.
The order also appeared to render largely toothless other local restrictions, such as mask mandates and curfews, by suspending the collection of individual fines and other penalties imposed for violating virus-related restrictions.
Cases are down significantly in the state after a big surge over the summer. The governor has touted the fact that Florida was able to come down from the spike without imposing a lockdown as evidence that shutting down businesses should not be contemplated to try to contain the virus in the future. Jason Mahon, a spokesman for Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, which operates state-run testing sites, says the sites have plenty of capacity but fewer people are coming to get tested. Testing is also conducted at municipal, federal and private sites.
As of Thursday, Florida was testing 38 percent of a testing target developed by researchers at the Harvard Global Health Institute that measures the minimum amount of testing necessary to mitigate the disease. The state had a positivity rate of 12 percent for the total number of tests processed over the two-week period ending Thursday, according to data analyzed by The Times. Positive rates should be at or below 5 percent for at least 14 days before a state or country can safely reopen, according to the World Health Organization.
Emergency room visits related to the virus peaked in early July and hospitalizations on July 21, Mr. DeSantis said. On Friday, Florida added more than 2,800 new cases and 120 new deaths. In total, the state has recorded more than 695,000 cases and more than 13,900 deaths, according to a Times database.
If a county wants to restrict restaurant capacity between 50 and 100 percent, Mr. DeSantis said, it will need to provide justification to the state.
“The idea that government dictating this is better than them making decisions so that their customers have confidence, I think, is misplaced,” he said.