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Gov. DeSantis lifts state-level restaurant capacity restrictions, allows Florida to move to Phase 3 of reopening

The governor has signed an executive order that allows all restaurants to operate with at least 50 percent capacity regardless of local restrictions.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis traveled Friday to St. Petersburg, where he made a major announcement impacting the bar and restaurant industry.

Speaking at The Birchwood hotel on Beach Drive Northeast, the governor said the state would move into what was initially called Phase 3 of its reopening plan. DeSantis signed an order Friday, guaranteeing restaurants the right to operate and lifting state-level capacity restrictions on them.

The order states that no coronavirus emergency ordinances can prevent employees from working at or operating businesses, which his office says gives Floridians and businesses owners "needed certainty" about their abilities to provide for their families going forward.

"All businesses in Florida, including bars and nightclubs, are permitted to operate," DeSantis' Press Secretary Cody McCloud wrote in an email. "However, local governments may regulate capacity and other protocols at their discretion. Restaurants may not be limited to less than 50% of their indoor capacity."

As the statement from McCloud mentions, the governor's order means local governments aren't allowed to restrict restaurant indoor capacity to anything below 50 percent. And, if municipalities are trying to restrict restaurant capacity at all, they need to justify why and get it cleared by the state.

The state says if a local government limits its area restaurants to less than 100 percent of indoor capacity, the local order must quantify the economic impact that limitation has on its restaurants and thoroughly explain why the limitation is necessary in the interest of public health.

"They've got to identify what the costs of doing that are," DeSantis said of any local governments that don't want to allow restaurants to operate at 100 percent capacity.

The governor says he will not allow local governments to close restaurants. As he has stated this week, he does not believe restaurant closures have made a difference in limiting the spread of COVID-19. 

"I think this will be very important to the industry, and it will also be a recognition that they have worked as hard as anybody to create safe environments," DeSantis said of the restaurants.

DeSantis said his decision is effective immediately. That means many restaurants may soon be operating at full or near-full capacity.

Some in Tampa Bay are already making adjustments. Restaurants under the Datz Restaurant Group will being to move full capacity immediately.

Co-owner, Suzanne Perry, was surprised, but thrilled to hear the news, "When you go from 50% to 100% capacity, that will make a huge difference," said Perry. "That will make the difference between restaurants surviving and not surviving, I can tell you that for sure.”

Others, like Columbia Restaurant Group, are increasing capacity, but do not plan to go completely back to normal. 

“The most important thing for us is for our staff and our guests to continue to feel safe," said Richard Gonzmart of Columbia Restaurant Group, in a statement to 10 Tampa Bay. "We are evaluating each of our restaurants and will add some tables and seats, but not anything close to 100 percent capacity at this time.” 

While the executive order does not specifically mention bars, the governor addressed the subject during his news conference on Friday. DeSantis acknowledged some limited issues with bars in recent weeks but said bars will be allowed to operate with at least 50 percent capacity, just like restaurants. If local governments want to allow capacity above 50 percent for bars, they may do so.

"If you want to go beyond the 50 percent, you can authorize it and do it," DeSantis told local governments about bars and pubs specifically. "We're not telling you that you have to, but we're not going to stand in the way of that."

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