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Florida forges ahead in lifting curbs amid virus concerns

MIAMI — As the summer coronavirus spike in Sunbelt states subsides, Florida has gone the furthest in lifting restrictions, especially on restaurants where the burden of ensuring safety has shifted to business owners and residents — raising concerns of a resurgence.

In his drive to return the state to normalcy, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis lifted limits on indoor seating at restaurants, saying they can operate at 100% in cities and counties with no restrictions and that other local governments with some restrictions can’t limit indoor seating by more than 50%.

In some of Florida’s touristy neighborhoods, patrons have since been flocking to bars and restaurants, filling terraces, defying mask orders — drawing mixed reactions from business owners and other customers.

“We’re generally concerned that we’re going to find ourselves on the other side of an inverted curve and erasing all the progress we’ve made,” said Albert Garcia, chairman of the Wynwood Business improvement district, which represents 50 blocks of restaurants and bars in Miami’s trendy arts district.

Other Sunbelt states that have been COVID-19 hot spots over the summer haven’t gone as far. In Texas, bars have been closed since June under Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders, and restaurants can hold up to 75% of their capacity, while face covers are required throughout the state. And in Arizona, restaurants and bars must run at half-capacity.

Though Florida’s governor generally wears a mask when arriving at public appearances and has allowed municipalities to impose mask rules, he has declined to impose a statewide mandate. And on Sept. 25, as the state entered a Phase 3 reopening, he barred municipalities from collecting fines for mask violations.

DeSantis says contact tracing has not shown restaurants to be substantial sources of spread.

“I am confident that these restaurants want to have safe environments,” he said earlier this week. “And I’m also confident that as a consumer, if you don’t go and you don’t think they’re taking precautions, then obviously you’re going to take your business elsewhere.”

Craig O’Keefe, managing partner for Johnnie Brown’s and Lionfish in Delray Beach, said they’re now accommodating as many people as they did before the pandemic began and he’s hired eight people in the past few days. Demand surged last weekend.

“It was like someone turned the light on,” O’Keefe said. “It was great to see people out smiling, having fun getting to see each other. It’s been a really nice thing to get people back to work.”

Shutdowns and restrictions have battered Florida’s economy, leaving hundreds of thousands unemployed in the tourist-dependent state.

Earlier this week, The Walt Disney Co. announced it would lay off 28,000 workers in its theme parks division even after the Florida parks were allowed to reopen this summer.

Florida has had more than 14,500 deaths from the pandemic, ranking 12th per capita among states. Its outbreak peaked in the summer, seeing as many as 12,000-15,000 cases added per day. New cases, positivity rates, hospitalizations and deaths have been on a downward trend for