BY MARCY SHORTUSE – Gov. Ron DeSantis announced on Wednesday afternoon, April 29, that Florida would take “small, deliberate and methodical steps towards a more hopeful future” by declaring a “Safe, Smart and Step-by-Step” program, set to begin on Monday, May 4. Excluded from the program at this time are Dade, Palm Beach and Broward Counties.
We are now entering phase one of the plan. The major changes that will take place include the ability for restaurants to offer outdoor seating with six-foot distancing and indoor seating at 25 percent capacity, and all retail stores having the ability to operate at 25 percent indoor capacity.
“If your business is open, it may remain open and should continue appropriate social distancing and sanitation measures,” DeSantis said. “Also, any activity or work that has been available under the previous order remains available. Businesses should adopt appropriate social distancing and sanitation measures.”
Elective surgeries can resume as well. Medical services, including elective procedures, surgical centers, office surgery centers, dental offices, orthodontic offices, endodontic offices and other health care practitioners offices may fully re-open.
Lee County beaches were opened to the public earlier this week, including restroom facilities and the ability to bring beach chairs and coolers. However, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection will announce a phased-in re-opening of state parks.
Schools will remain to use distance learning, and visits to senior living facilities are still prohibited. Bars, gyms and personal services such as hair salons are still closed, and the ban on short-term rentals is still in effect.
DeSantis said Florida residents are still supposed to limit interaction outside of their homes, and to wear a mask in situations outside the home where face-to-face contact is required. The elderly and those with underlying medical conditions – including chronic lung disease, moderate-to-severe asthma, serious heart conditions, cancer, renal failure and liver disease should continue to stay at home and away from people who they don’t come in contact with every day.
In other words, all social distancing measures, including those on the water if you are in a boat, still apply. DeSantis said that everyone should continue to avoid gathering in groups more than 10 as well.
Airport screening and isolation measures will continue as well. People are discouraged from traveling to places with a significant presence of COVID-19 cases, and non-essential travel is discouraged overall. People who must travel to and from places with a heavy presence of COVID cases should still quarantine themselves for two weeks. This includes people who take cruises. People who come to Florida are still required to quarantine.
Violation of this order is a misdemeanor and is punishable by imprisonment up to 60 days and a fine up to $500. The order is to be enforced by local and state law enforcement.
The original “Safer at Home” order, scheduled to expire on May 1, was extended by DeSantis to include days preceding May 4. It will expire at 12:01 a.m. on Monday, May 4.
Part of phase one, DeSantis said, is a plan that includes expanded testing beyond what has already been done. He said he recognizes there are many underserved communities in the state that will benefit not only from more drive-through testing facilities, but walk-up facilities as well.
“We want to be able to spot trends in the smaller, more isolated communities,” he said.
New drive-through testing sites in our area will be at the Sarasota/Manatee county line, and another at the Lee/Collier county line.
More laboratories to process test results will also be part of phase one. DeSantis said they will have the capacity to do 3,500 tests a week, and at some sites they will be able to get an answer within an hour. He specifically mentioned an RV testing laboratory that they currently utilize.
“We’re not only bringing the swabs, we’re bringing the lab,” he said. “We hope to be able to do that by the beginning of next week.”
DeSantis said contact tracing continues to be a vital part of keeping Floridians healthy, and that the method will be implemented even more in days to come. What this means is that if a person is found to be positive for the virus, healthcare workers will find other people who have come in close contact with the patient and test them as well.
The governor said he hopes that future phases in Florida’s “Safe, Smart Step-by-Step” plan will be implemented in weeks, not months.
“When we proceed with our next step, the determination will be data driven and focus on facts,” he said. “If we see more cases where people are going into the hospital and it looks like a surge that our hospitals can’t handle, we have to take that into account. If we don’t see a flood of people coming into the hospital, that means we can progress.”
DeSantis warned that as more tests are given in the coming weeks, people should expect they could see a sharp increase in the numbers of positive cases.
“When you do that many more tests in a day, what will happen is, you will find people who are asymptomatic and positive, so you may see the total number of cases go up. Remember, we are trying to build a foundation for the state of Florida’s future. Right now fear is our enemy. We are a resourceful people with a can-do spirit … we need to focus on facts, not fear.”