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00000177-b32b-d5f4-a5ff-bbfb6e660000Here is the information you need to know about COVID-19 in Northwest Florida. We will keep this post updated with the latest information from local, and statewide agencies. For inforamtion from Centers for Disease Control and prevention: cdc.gov/coronavirusFor updates on Florida cases of coronavirus, visit the FDOH dashboard.The COVID-19 call center is available at 24/7 at 1-866-779-6121

DeSantis Orders Reopenings Amid Pandemic

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Despite the continued spread of COVID-19, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is lifting all restrictions on restaurants and other businesses, which were aimed at curbing the virus.

“We are today moving into what we initially called ‘Phase-3,’ and what that will mean for the restaurants is that there will not be limitations from the state of Florida,” said the governor.

Speaking in St. Petersburg Friday, DeSantis said this ensures that restaurants can operate at a minimum of 50% capacity. If local ordinances restrict eateries from operating between 50 and 100% capacity, DeSantis says the county will have to explain why.

“We have some people saying, ‘Well, you can never do full what you want to do until there’s a vaccine,’” said the governor. “But now people are saying, ‘Hey, even if there’s a vaccine, it’s still going to take another year before you can operate appropriately. I don’t think that’s viable, I don’t think that that is acceptable.”

The decision, contends DeSantis, is also the state’s message that Floridians have the right to work, every business has the right to operate.

“Some of the locals, if they can do reasonable regulations,” said the governor. “But you can’t do six months and just have people twisting in the wind. And I do think that’s another important principle.”

DeSantis signed an executive order in March, directing all restaurants and food establishments to suspend on premise food and alcohol consumption. Delivery and takeout services were allowed.

“It’s been tough; you know, the restaurant business is tough. You’re closed for a while, then you’re open and at 50% capacity. It can kind of be death by a thousand cuts; it’s just draining,” said Collier Merrill, owner of five Pensacola-area restaurants, including The Fish House and Jackson’s.

In all, his workforce numbers about 500. He applauds the governor’s announcement.

“Most people that are ready to go back to work are [already] working; it might not be getting all of their shifts, because we’ve kind of divided them, [to] keep everybody getting some,” Merrill said. “So this will certainly add. And we knew that the governor was going to lift it at some point, wasn’t exactly sure when. So when he did it, we had to scramble a little bit to get more servers in.”

COVID-related business problems started blooming in March;  as we head out of September, Merrill said things are beginning to turn around – part of which the resurgence in tourism. And he adds they’re doing what they can and accepting what they cannot.

“It’s nothing we can do about it; that’s what I’ve told a lot of people,” said Merrill. “It’s not like if we work harder we can get rid of the virus. Once you accept that kind of attitude, ‘this is it, this is the hand we’ve been given, there’s no way we can change the virus part of it,’ we’ve got to deal with the other side of it. We’ve done that pretty well. And then you throw a little hurricane on top of that, it just keeps coming at you.”

But Merrill is quick to add that they will continue to comply with all local requirements, including Pensacola’s mask ordinance which was unanimously upheld by the City Council.

“Before the mast ordinance went out, all of our employees wore masks and that will continue,” Merrill said. “Customers – we tell them when you’re not sitting at your table, wear a mask. [Also] if they’re going to the bathroom. If they’re ordering or sitting down with their group, that’s fine. So we’ll continue with all that.”

Bars were allowed to reopen for three weeks in June, but the state shut them down again after a spike in COVID cases. The Department of Business and Professional Regulation – and not the governor – reopened bars two weeks ago. Bars remain restricted to half capacity, if they did not apply to alter their liquor licenses to allow for the serving of food as a quasi-restaurant.

“I bought a toaster oven and we’re selling Bagel Bites,” said Nick Zangari, owner of Badlands in downtown Pensacola. “I know people who were doing Hot Pockets, I know people who were doing hot dogs just to get their bars open to 50% capacity.”

Because of the license changes, most of the bars already were operating at that rate.

“I’m actually kind of shocked, really, that it’s happened at this point,” Zangari said. “Because it’s pretty much been that way for a while. I know that most places are trying to social distance, but trying to be the social distancing police is a tough sell in the middle of a bar.”

Local regulations remain in effect, but Zangari says he’s comfortable with them – including Thursday night’s vote by the Pensacola City Council to continue mandatory face coverings.

“The bottom line as far as a lot of people and business: if you don’t feel comfortable when you walk in the door with what you seek, then maybe you just don’t walk in that door,” said Zangari. “Most employees – especially for food handling – yes, they probably should be required to wear a mask at this point.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ reopening order on Friday came after Florida reported thousands of new cases, and 162 deaths since Thursday — the highest count of any state.