Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis opened up a can of chaos on September 25 when he declared the state's Phase 3 reopening, lifting local measures established to curb the spread of COVID-19 and allowing all businesses that had been shut down to resume operations at once, most at full capacity and only with "limited social distancing protocols." DeSantis said local governments could impose "reasonable restrictions" on how businesses can operate but can't force closures.
"Everybody has an opportunity and the right to work," DeSantis said during a press conference that day. "Every business has the right to operate."
While the governor acknowledged that Floridians shouldn't take economic reopenings as a sign that the virus has disappeared, he remained silent on mask usage and social distancing as Floridians go on about their lives and learn to "deal with" the pandemic, as he said we would be required to do from here on out.
When a reporter asked DeSantis if the executive order putting Florida in the final stage of its reopening plan addresses local mask mandates, he said, "That's a good point" and went on to explain that he would suspend outstanding fines and penalties against people who flout COVID-19 restrictions.
Governor's Remarks Sow Confusion in Miami-DadeIf videos that showed Miami bars and restaurants packed with maskless guests following the Phase 3 announcement are any indication, some people took that to mean masks were no longer required in Miami-Dade County.
Philippe Kalifa, co-owner of the bar El Patio Wynwood and president of the Wynwood Restaurant and Bar Association, tells New Times he received reports last weekend from several bar owners who had issues with patrons who thought masks were no longer required and who declined to comply with the business' rules.
"I'm sure deep inside, they wanted this thing to be over," Kalifa says. "When they heard the order from the governor, it was confusing. They felt everything is done and masks aren't required anymore. We have to make sure people have social distance, and now we have to fight as well to make sure people understand masks are still enforced. The officials didn't make our lives easy on that. It was a bit of a nightmare for us."
Masks Are Still Required Under Most Circumstances
In case any doubt remains: Masks are still required in Miami. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Giménez's executive order 20-20, which requires all county residents and visitors to wear face coverings in public with some exceptions, remains in effect.
- Masks are a must everywhere people go except when they're inside their homes, their cars, religious institutions, or a guest room at a hotel/motel/Holiday Inn.
- Masks are not required for children younger than two years of age, individuals who can't wear facial coverings because of a medical condition, and those who are hearing impaired.
- Masks are not required if you're actively exercising indoors or outdoors, actively eating or drinking, swimming or doing anything that would cause a face covering to get wet, or if you're receiving services that require access to your nose or mouth.
Team sports competitions are allowed to resume in Miami-Dade. Players must wear face coverings in parks and other outdoor spaces except when "actively engaging in an organized sport."
The county's New Normal guide for residents and businesses even offers mask guidance for lifeguards who may need to perform CPR.
Fines, Basic Principles, and "Inviting Catastrophe"
DeSantis may have suspended the collection of fines related to COVID-19 safety enforcement, but Giménez says the county will continue to issue citations and collect the $100 fines at a later date.
Dr. Aileen Marty, a public-health expert and infectious-diseases professor at Florida International University's Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press Daily on Friday that the most important thing a leader can do is "set the tone."
"Set the tone of doing what's best to keep as many things functioning in as healthy a way as possible," Marty said. "That means encourage the use of the six-foot distance, the masks."
Marty says wearing face coverings and maintaining social distance are basic principles that can keep people safe.
"Whatever he wants to do that's going to help the economy, let's do it in such a way that we maintain these basic principles and that everyone understands that if we don't maintain these principles, things can get very bad and very quickly," she said.
Marty's remarks aside, while local leaders like Giménez and City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez continue to spread the mask-wearing gospel, that message hasn't come as strongly from the governor.
Kathleen Sposato, senior director of infection prevention at Miami's Jackson Health System, says she believes suspending enforcement of local mask mandates is tantamount to saying masks are unimportant and unnecessary. Add that to all the businesses that are now allowed to be open across the state at full capacity, and Sposato worries about the rise in cases the state might see in two to four weeks.
"We're just inviting catastrophe," she says.
Sposato and Dr. Terry Adirim, senior associate dean for clinical affairs at Florida Atlantic University's College of Medicine, say mask penalties served as an effective measure to convince the less cooperative to wear masks so they could avoid forking over $100. They say the governor kneecapped local governments' ability to implement the rules counties with historically higher COVID-19 positivity rates, like Miami-Dade, need to continue to curb the spread of the virus.
"What you've done is, you've taken away one of [local government's] tools to get people to do the right thing," Adirim says. "You're not only moving on to another phase, you're saying you can't enforce masks. It's crazy."
The Onus Is Now on Business Owners
As Kalifa, the bar owner, says some Wynwood establishments have already experienced firsthand, DeSantis' order dropped the social-distancing enforcement burden onto the shoulders of employees and business owners.
"It's tough to put the onus on business owners," Adirim tells New Times. "They have to balance customers who don't feel safe with the people who resent having to wear a mask, plus the fallout from having an employee risking violence from people who don't wear a mask. The burden shouldn't be placed on them. You can't just have businesses trying to do it on their own."
The Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association (FRLA), a hospitality-industry trade association, says member businesses are happy to be back at work. Lynne Hernandez, the South Florida regional director of the FRLA, says that although Miami-Dade continues to enforce its local mask mandate, the association supports businesses that decide to enforce mask requirements of their own, regardless of government regulations.
"As a private entity, the establishment has the ability to decide operational things of this manner for themselves," Hernandez notes.
The association has also issued guidance to businesses on how to manage tense situations.
"When faced with a customer that seems unwilling to comply with local regulations, we have advised our members they should share information regarding the local regulation with the customer, apologize for any inconvenience, and respectfully request that they comply so that the restaurant would have the privilege of serving them," Hernandez says. "If the customer continues to be noncompliant, we have suggested that they respectfully request that the customer depart and return when they feel that they can comply with the local regulation."
Hernandez says the association hopes guests and customers understand business' responsibility to comply with local government rules.
"If an exchange with a customer escalates, it is in the establishment's best interest to seek the assistance of law enforcement for the purpose of maintaining a peaceful atmosphere," she says.