TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) — Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced the first phase of reopening the state Wednesday, one day after health officials reported the most deaths since the coronavirus outbreak began.
Hospitals statewide can resume elective surgeries beginning May 4, the Republican governor said at a press conference. Restaurants can serve patrons outdoors while utilizing social distancing and indoors at 25% capacity. Retail shops can also open with 25% capacity.
Bars, gyms and services such as hair salons will remain closed. Schools must continue distance learning and visitors still cannot visit long-term care facilities.
The lifting of restrictions does not apply to the South Florida counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, which have seen 60% of the state’s coronavirus cases.
DeSantis called the process “small, deliberate and methodical.”
“This will not be like turning off a switch,” he said.
The plan largely mirrors guidelines set out by the White House, though DeSantis made some adjustments including keep movie theaters closed. DeSantis met with President Donald Trump on Tuesday to discuss Florida’s reopening strategy. The governor said he also met with Dr. Deborah Birx.
“They agree Florida is ready to go to phase one,” DeSantis said.
As of Wednesday morning, the Florida Department of Health reported 33,193 cases of coronavirus. The state death toll stands at more than 1,200.
On Tuesday, health officials reported 83 new deaths from coronavirus, the highest single-day death toll since the pandemic began. However, DeSantis suggested the numbers were a result of some counties holding reports for a few days before submitting to the state.
“When they were reported is not necessarily the date of the fatalities,” he said.
DeSantis took a defensive tone during the press conference, chastising early media reports predicting massive fatalities and an overwhelmed health care system.
“What is our biggest obstacle? Fear,” he said. “We’ve seen doom, gloom and hysteria.”
Florida’s hospitalizations and deaths from the coronavirus are far lower than states like Massachusetts, Illinois and Michigan. Several coronavirus models show the state has flattened the curve with the peak number of cases on April 2.
“That worst case scenario has not come true,” DeSantis said. “We’ve done much better than everybody said we were going to do.”
DeSantis faced criticism for his piecemeal approach, first closing bars on March 17 and not issuing a stay-at-home order until April 1.
As Florida’s cases grew, DeSantis repeatedly stressed how the coronavirus affected parts of the state differently. South Florida accounted for most of the cases, state officials said, while some counties in the Panhandle only reported a handful.
The governor’s plan to reopen takes a similar approach.
A Quinnipiac University poll released last week found half of Florida voters approve of DeSantis’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic, even though six out of 10 respondents thought he should have responded sooner.
Dr. José Szapocznik, chair of the public health services department at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, said the governor’s guidelines sound “reasonable.”
“We need to look at testing and whether we are going to be testing people as they get back to work,” Szapocznik said.
As the state moves forward, Szapocznik said officials need to expand testing and track those who may have been in contact with the virus.
“We didn’t control the epidemic, we are trying to reduce its impact,” he said. “Testing, tracking and isolation is what it takes to keep the epidemic under control.”
Dr. Marissa Levine, director of the Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice at the University of South Florida, said state and local officials must continue to be vigilant to avoid a second spike.
“The social distancing has worked,” Levine said by phone. “It flattened the curve.”
She added: “But now we have to figure out how to move forward realizing that a significant part of our communities are still not immune to the virus. The message that has to go out with any reopening is we still have to do everything possible to continue to do physical distancing and hygienic practices.”