(CBS News) - Florida bars are set to reopen at half capacity on Monday, a decision that coincides with university students' return to campuses for in-person learning, and as Governor Ron DeSantis encourages travel, despite a large number of coronavirus cases in the state.
The state this week rescinded an executive order issued in late June, when the coronavirus was surging in Florida, to curtail bar drinking. As of Thursday, 12,326 people in Florida have died of COVID-19 and roughly 655,000 have been infected, according to Johns Hopkins University. The state has a positive coronavirus test rate of 13.5%, among the highest in the country.
The effort to jump-start the Florida economy comes amid reports of hundreds of students testing positive for the virus at colleges and universities across the state, including more than 800 at Florida State University in Tallahassee and roughly 400 more at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Cases have also been confirmed at the University of South Florida in Tampa and University of Central Florida in Orlando.
Florida bars had been previously allowed to reopen on June 3, only to be told to close again on June 27 as coronavirus cases surged.
Bars won’t be allowed to reopen in Miami-Dade County, Florida’s most populous county and the region hardest hit by the pandemic. Carlos Gimenez, the county’s mayor, told reporters on Wednesday that he did not see bars and nightclubs reopening for the foreseeable future, or “until we get a vaccine.” By contrast, the county is lifting bans on rental scooters, outdoor amusement parks and tour boats as of Monday.
John Cheek, owner of Orlando Brewing, a tap room that makes and sells craft beer, said his brewery never fully closed because it could sell beer to go. Still, the limited operation was unsustainable, with Cheek now in debt for the first time in 14 years of running the business. He is staying afloat thanks to government relief money and a small-business loan.
Cheek now has nine employees, about half of the 17 workers he had before the pandemic. Having to tell people who are doing a good job that he no longer has work for them “hurts a lot,” he told CBS MoneyWatch.
“My complaint all along is we’re not a restaurant,” Cheek said. “It’s unfair that I had to serve food,” Cheek said, arguing that while food trucks routinely serve customers at his brewery, that didn’t make it any safer from the virus.
Hospitalized with COVID-19 in July, Cheek said he is now recovered but still tired, and very cognizant of enforcing safety measures including social distancing and mask requirements at his brewery.
Florida isn’t the only state allowing bars to reopen despite a high rate of coronavirus cases. Bars in a handful of Louisiana parishes will be allowed to re-open at 25% capacity under new, looser coronavirus restrictions announced Friday by Gov. John Bel Edwards.
Bars in the state have been closed since July except for those that have licenses to operate as restaurants. Under the guidelines announced Friday, bars in parishes where the percentage of positive COVID-19 deaths is 5% or below for four weeks can open if parish leaders give the OK, Edwards said.
Bar openings won’t happen in New Orleans, where Mayor LoToya Cantrell is maintaining stricter rules.