On May 4, a slow and methodical reopening of Florida commenced following Gov. Ron DeSantis’ phase one plan announced on April 29. Restaurants and local businesses flipped their signs to ‘open,’ while elective surgeries at hospitals were given the green light.
Aiding the governor in the decision-making process on such matters like restaurants and schools was the Florida Re-Open Task Force. Three working industry groups, which brought various leaders from business, health, education and government, among others, brought forth recommendations to an executive committee, which then issued a report to the governor.
Leading the task force executive committee and moderating discussions throughout the way was Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez. She’s played a key role in the state’s response to the pandemic since early March on the health side as the one who oversees the Florida Health Department, and on the economic side as a member of the reopening task force.
“We tried to do everything from the standpoint of the task force to listen and compile as much information, address some of the concerns in a report of the governor and ultimately he made his decisions based on that task force,” she said.
On May 1, the Weekly had the chance to speak with Nuñez via phone to discuss the reopening process, the state’s handling of the coronavirus, the challenges the state’s had to confront as a result of pandemic and how the Keys have fared locally since its first reported case on March 20. This is the first in a series of stories on what the lieutenant governor had to say.
REOPENING FLORIDA AND THE ROLE OF THE TASK FORCE
Not all recommendations found in the task force’s report were enacted by the governor in phase one. The group recommended 50% dine-in at restaurants, but DeSantis chose to begin at 25%. Gyms and personal services like salons and hairdresser shops were recommended to open at 50%, but the governor wasn’t ready to do that just yet.
Recommendations to maintain suspensions on vacation rentals were taken by the governor, as well as keeping bars deriving 50% of sales through alcohol closed.
In summary, Nuñez said the first phase of DeSantis’ recovery plan can be characterized as a critical baby step.
“He wanted to hone in on the areas where we understand there’s going to be a lot of people eager to get back to work, but do so in a safe and responsible way,” she said. “That’s why you saw him ratchet the recommendations down from a 50% capacity for restaurants and retail to 25%. I think that was a good, solid step and I know that a lot of people would like to see it expanded and have no to little restrictions, but we know that we want to do things cautiously.”
Nuñez said the role of the task force wasn’t to focus on the public health data necessarily, although experts in epidemiology provided updates and reports to the task force groups in the short amount of time they had. Rather, the group came up with a report giving the governor recommendations for a basis to make decisions to reopen the economy.
“On that perspective, it was very useful. It was done in a very compressed timeframe. We had about a week, actually four days if you will, but nonetheless, we heard from a lot of industry experts,” she said. “We heard from everyone from restaurants and theme parks, agriculture and food service and the supply chain.”
States like Georgia have allowed businesses like bars and restaurants to reopen, so long as they follow strict distancing and sanitation guidelines. In Texas, theaters and malls can open at limited capacity, while rural counties with less than five cases can open restaurants at 50% capacity. As states reopen plans begin to take effect, Nuñez acknowledged that the Florida governor isn’t exactly ready to flip the switch on fully just yet.
“We don’t want to take two steps backward if and when we open up at a larger rate with much looser restrictions,” she said. “I think that’s something important for us to do gradually.”
“If you start slowly and gradually, there will be a certain segment of the population who will feel comfortable going out, taking precautions such as social distancing,” she continued. “Obviously, businesses want to protect their patrons and employees. I think there will be a lot of personal responsibility, and I think people are very mindful of that.”
DeSantis met with the president and Dr. Deborah Birx, who both signed off on the plan before it was announced on April 29. And while things begin to reopen, Nuñez said the governor and his administration understand that the virus isn’t going anywhere magically overnight.
“We have to continue to work through all the issues with the virus, and I think that’s been a testimony to him (DeSantis) with his focus on testing capacity,” she said.