(The Center Square) – Gov. Ron DeSantis hinted Thursday he will announce further relaxations of COVID-19 restrictions Friday, including allowing parts of Florida to move into phase two of his reopening plan.
DeSantis lifted his April 1 stay-at-home order two weeks ago, allowing 64 of 67 counties to advance into limited reopening May 4. Bars, movie theaters, gyms and many other businesses remained closed.
Last week, he advanced Palm Beach County into phase one, effective Monday, and allowed barbers, hair stylists and nail salon operators to reopen. On Thursday, he authorized Miami-Dade and Broward counties to move into phase one, beginning Monday.
During Thursday's announcement at a Doral news conference, the governor said “stay tuned” for additional relaxations he planned to reveal Friday in Jacksonville.
“Phase two really isn’t that different from what Florida’s done already,” DeSantis said, adding the next stage in relaxing shutdown orders would be “basically about opening up bars and some of those things.”
Gyms are definitely on the “reopen” agenda.
“It’s important for people to go to the gym and exercise," DeSantis said. "Most of the people with infections (are) tied to obesity. So clearly we have an announcement tomorrow that’s going to encompass the gym.”
DeSantis did not address lifting the visitation ban at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, nor did he discuss allowing vacation rentals to resume. He did extend his suspension on evictions and foreclosures through June 2.
His order suspended all statutes “providing for a mortgage foreclosure cause of action.” For evictions, the order said tenants may not be removed for nonpayment, indicating other types of evictions can proceed.
Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have been off-limits to visitors since March 14, a precaution DeSantis claimed limited the number of cases and deaths among residents most vulnerable to COVID-19.
“My view has been that I want to get to ‘yes’ on that,” DeSantis said Wednesday. “I just want to be able to know that we have procedures in place that if someone goes to visit their mother, that two weeks later we are not going to have 50 infections roil a nursing home or a long-term care facility.”
The governor said there is no timetable for getting to “ 'yes' on that,” with caution still the primary factor guiding his decision-making process.
The Florida Department of Health (DOH) has established a long-term care report that charts COVID-19 cases in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. As of Wednesday, 482 of 3,800 Florida nursing homes and assisted living facilities reported 1,604 COVID-19-positive residents and 1,804 positive staff members.
According to DOH, the 1,604 who have tested COVID-19 positive represents 1.1 percent of 147,144 long-term care residents statewide.
The number of deaths among nursing home and assisted living facility residents, however, accounts for about 40 percent of state fatalities attributed to the disease.
DOH has a separate report that updates nursing home and assisted living facility COVID-19 deaths weekly. As of the last update Wednesday, it listed 776 residents among the state’s 1,875 COVID-19 deaths.
Meanwhile, Florida House Panhandle Republicans have called on DeSantis to lift his order prohibiting vacation rentals.
“Our hotels, motels, inns, and resorts are reopening while vacation rentals are singled out,” lawmakers wrote in a letter to the governor. “They employ and directly impact so many in this region, yet will be unable to handle a second consecutive month with zero income.”
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, who represents the Panhandle in Congress, called on DeSantis to lift the vacation rental freeze in a press conference earlier this month.
“In northwest Florida, we don’t have a 500-key hotel room every 1,000 feet,” Gaetz said.
The Re-Open Florida Task Force report, which laid out a three-phase “road map” for the state’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery, recommended vacation rentals could open to only Florida residents in phase two and to any comers in phase three.