In response to COVID-19, bars, gyms, and restaurant dining rooms closed, elective surgeries restricted

MEASURES PUT in place in Florida in response to the COVID-19 outbreak by means of emergency executive order have been wide-ranging; among these have been the closing of bars, gyms, restaurant dining rooms, placing of restrictions on elective medical procedures, and increasing flexibility for meetings of local government bodies. (iStock image)

By DOTTY NIST

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has issued a series of temporary emergency executive orders in response to the COVID-19 virus pandemic during early- through mid-March 2020, with wide-ranging impacts.

The orders followed DeSantis’s original executive order related to COVID-19, issued after two Florida residents tested presumptively positive for the respiratory virus.

As of March 23, there were 937 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 in Florida residents.

Gov. DeSantis’s March 1 order had, among other actions, directed the declaration of a public health emergency in Florida, designated the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) as the lead state agency to coordinate activities for emergency response to the virus situation among state and local government agencies, and called for FDOH to follow Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines in “establishing protocols to control” the spread of the virus and educate the public on prevention.

March 9 executive order

On March 9, with positive cases for COVID-19 having been confirmed in eight of Florida’s 67 counties (now in at least 45 counties as of March 23), Gov. DeSantis directed the execution of Florida’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan, with Dr. Scott Rivkees, state health officer and surgeon general designated to serve as Coordinating Officer and Incident Commander, granting Rivkees empowerment to designate deputy state coordinating officers as needed.

Rivkees was authorized to “suspend the effect of any statute, rule, or order that would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay any mitigation, response, or recovery action necessary to cope with this emergency,” and to put in place needed orders.

Gov. Santis’s March 9 order also provided for the activation of the National Guard, as needed, in connection with the emergency. It provided for flexibility, as well, for state agencies in budgeting and operational procedures as necessary to cope with the emergency. It provided for pharmacists to dispense up to 30-day emergency prescription refills under some conditions.

The order provided local governments, as well, with operational flexibility in performance of public work, entering into contracts, incurring obligations, hiring workers, using volunteer workers, renting equipment, acquiring and distribution of supplies, materials and facilities, and appropriation and expenditure of public funds. It provided for closing state buildings and facilities as necessary.

The order directed that “sufficient funds be made available” by the state, including funds appropriated for other purposes, unappropriated surplus funds, or moneys from the Budget Stabilization Fund, as needed, to pay costs of coping with the emergency. It provided for medical professionals, social workers, and counselors licensed by states other than Florida to render their services in Florida as long as the services were provided free of charge and under the auspices of the American Red Cross or the FDOH.

March 17 executive order closes bars, limits restaurant seating, sets beach requirements

On March 17, Gov. DeSantis issued an executive order applying to bars, night clubs, and pubs. He directed all establishments licensed to sell alcoholic beverages for on-premise consumption that derive more than 50 percent of their gross revenue from alcohol sales to suspend all sale of alcoholic beverages for 30 days from the order, with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (BPR) to enforce this provision.

People accessing public beaches were also directed to refrain from gathering in groups of more than 10 persons, keep a distance of six feet from other parties, and “support beach closure at the discretion of local authorities.”

The March 17 executive order also mandated that restaurants limit their occupancy to 50 percent of “current building occupancy” and implement a minimum six-foot distance between groups of patrons, with group size to be limited to 10 people.

The order, as well, tasked BPR with ensuring that all restaurants implement specific employee screening procedures to prevent spread of COVID-19.

On March 20, Gov. DeSantis issued four executive orders, all related to the COVID-19 emergency.

Local government public meetings

Issued March 20, Executive Order (EO) 20-69 contained a number of provisions related to local government public meetings. The order suspended the requirement for a quorum of the local government body to be present at a meeting or for the government body to meet at a specific public place.

Gov. DeSantis also directed that local government bodies have the option to use communications media technology for meetings such as telephonic and video conferencing. He specified that the order did not waive any other requirement of the Florida Constitution or the Sunshine Law.

Closing of gyms and restaurant dining rooms, rules for alcohol sales by food establishments

An additional March 20 executive order, EO 20-71, required gyms to close down—and limited restaurants to providing delivery and take-out services, with no on-premises food consumption by customers allowed.

The order also provided for suspension of an existing restriction on specially-license food service establishments that derive at least 51 percent of gross food and beverage revenue from food and non-alcoholic beverage sales. Florida Statutes currently state that these businesses, “may not operate as a package store and may not sell intoxicating beverages under such license after the hours of serving or consumption of food have elapsed.”

EO 20-71 provided for this prohibition to be suspended under certain conditions, among those that the alcoholic beverages sold be “in a sealed container for consumption off-premises” and that food be included with the same order as the alcoholic beverage.

The order also specified that stores and vendors currently providing sealed containers of alcoholic beverages for off-premises consumption are allowed to continue these sales for off-premises consumption.

Prohibition on non-emergency medical surgeries/procedures

In order to conserve medical supplies and resources for response to the COVID-19 emergency, Gov. DeSantis directed in another March 20 executive order (EO 20-72) that health care practitioners refrain from providing any surgery or procedure that is “medically unnecessary, non-urgent or non-emergency…”

“Accordingly, all health care practitioners licensed in the State of Florida, including dentists, shall immediately cease performing these elective services,” according to the order.

The order lists some endoscopy, most cataract and lens surgeries, non-urgent spine and orthopedic surgeries, and cosmetic procedures as being among procedures to be delayed while the order remains in effect.

Broward County and Palm Beach County closures

Also issued on March 20 was an executive order applying to Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Gov. DeSantis noted in the order (EO 20-70) that the two counties “seek to harmonize with Miami-Dade County which has already restricted access to venue and closed its beaches to public access due to the risk of community spread (of COVID-19).”

The order directs the closing of on-premise services to customers at all Broward County and Palm Beach County restaurants, bars, banquet halls, breweries, cafeterias and any other alcohol and/or food service businesses with seating for more than 10 people. The measure however provides for the businesses to operate their kitchens for delivery services.

For grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and convenience stores with seating for 10 people for alcohol and/or food service, the order’s restrictions apply to the sections of the business providing these services.

Exempted from the order are restaurants in connection with “essential services” such as airports, port facilities, and hospitals.

The order also provides for the closure of not only beaches within the two counties but movie theaters, concert houses, auditoriums, playhouses, bowling alleys, arcades, and gyms. 

Residential building amenity gyms, those in fire or police stations, those within single-occupant office buildings, and those set up for 10 persons or less in connection with hotels are exempt from the order.

EO 20-70 provides for administrators of the two counties to modify or remove the stated closures.

The executive orders may be viewed online at: https://www.flgov.com/2020-executive-orders/