Margaritaville in Key West. KEYS WEEKLY FILE PHOTO

Flanked by restaurateurs, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Friday that he’d be signing an order immediately allowing restaurants to operate at a minimum capacity of 50%, regardless of local rules. That means restaurants can go back to full capacity if they choose. 

If local municipalities restrict restaurant capacities further than 50%, DeSantis said they must provide justification and costs involved with those actions. 

“I think this will be important to the industry in recognition that they have worked as hard as anybody to create safe environments,” DeSantis said. “The idea that government dictating this is better than them (restaurants) making these decisions so customers have confidence I think is misplaced.” 

Indoor dining in Florida had been closed as the coronavirus pandemic began to unravel in mid-March. By May 4, DeSantis gave restaurants the ability to reopen outdoor seating with tables distanced and dine-in capacity at 25%. By May 18, the governor moved indoor dining to 50% capacity. 

Florida remained under a phase 2 reopening since the beginning of June. Some 16 weeks later, DeSantis said everybody has to have an opportunity to work and business to operate. While local governments can enact what DeSantis called “reasonable regulations,” he said “you can’t just say ‘no’ after six months and have people twisting in the wind.” 

In the Keys, restaurants and bars have been able to operate at 50% indoor capacity. Outdoor seating isn’t limited, as long as tables are socially distanced at 6 feet apart.

County commissioners voted on Sept. 2 to allow restaurants to resume their normal hours of operation and allow a COVID-related 11 p.m. curfew to lapse. The curfew had forced restaurants to close, as well as retail alcohol sales at stores, to end at midnight.

The Florida Department of Health reported 2,851 cases and a positivity rate 4.29% on Sept. 24. In the Keys, the local health department reported 11 new cases on Sept. 25, including four in Key West, two in Key Largo, one in Marathon, one in Islamorada and three as missing city. Two were hospitalized at Lower Keys Medical Center as of Sept. 25. 

Not all counties have proceeded to phase 3 just yet. In South Florida, Miami-Dade and Broward counties just recently entered phase 2.

With DeSantis’ phase 3 announcement, nothing in Monroe County or Key West is expected to change until the city and county clarify their rules, and that won’t happen until the state executive order is received.

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