Ron DeSantis

The curtain has been partially raised.

After weeks of Florida being shut down because of coronavirus concerns, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday, April 29, unveiled the first phase of his plan to restart the state’s economy.

Places like restaurants and retail stores outside of Southeast Florida can start reopening on Monday at limited capacity. Many other businesses --- including hair salons, bars, nightclubs, bowling alleys and theme parks --- will remain shut for the time being.

Phase one of the plan was rolled out a day after DeSantis flew to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Donald Trump. The visit also landed the governor in a nationally televised Oval Office briefing with the president, a moment he used to tout Florida’ response to the pandemic and reject criticism of his leadership during the crisis.

Upon his return to Tallahassee, DeSantis’ plan had the backing of the president. The governor’s office said in a news release that Trump was “very supportive of Florida’s efforts” to reopen, making the point after the president criticized Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp for rushing to reopen.

Looking forward, DeSantis said he hopes the next phases of his plan will happen within weeks of each other. But he maintained he would embrace a “deliberate, methodical” approach to each step that would include monitoring hospital capacity and health-care resources. 

While the next steps have not been announced, recommendations issued by a task force offered a glimpse into what Florida could look like as it emerges from the coronavirus shutdown.

LIFE IN THE AGE OF CORONAVIRUS

DeSantis’ Re-Open Florida Task Force on Thursday released a blueprint for reopening the economy, though DeSantis is not bound to follow the recommendations.

For the second phase, the task force recommended that the state allow people to resume non-essential travel and permit restaurants, gyms, movie theaters, concert halls, bowling alleys, auditoriums and casinos to operate at 75 percent capacity, while keeping large sporting-event venues at 50 percent capacity.

Theme parks --- a critical part of  Florida’s tourism industry --- “may consider re-opening with capacity limits, strict social distancing and proper measures to clean and disinfect,” under the phase-two recommendations from the task force, whose members included executives from Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort. 

DeSantis has prevented people from renting vacation properties because of concerns visitors would bring the coronavirus into Florida. The task force would still impose restrictions on vacation rentals during the second phase. For example, hosts would only be allowed to rent to Florida residents and would be banned from accepting reservations from international travelers or from visitors who live in cities that are known hotspots for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

Hotels, motels, resorts and time-share projects would not be subject to the same restrictions as vacation rentals.

By the time the third phase comes around, the task force recommended, local governments should return to in-person meetings after being allowed to meet in conference calls and video conferences to prevent spread of the virus.

Also in the third phase, the task force recommended allowing bars, gyms, restaurants and nightclubs to operate at full capacity, theme parks to return to normal operations with “limited social distancing protocols” and vulnerable people to be allowed to “resume public interactions while practicing social distancing.”

Restaurants should also throw away paper menus after customers touch them and nail salons should not allow magazines or newspapers in service areas in phase three, the task force recommended.

VOTING RIGHTS CLASH

A federal trial that could determine whether hundreds of thousands of Floridians can cast ballots in this year’s presidential election kicked off Monday and continued through the week, as lawyers battled over a state law requiring felons who’ve served their time behind bars to pay “legal financial obligations” before voting.

The clash over voting rights is rooted in Republican lawmakers’ interpretation of a 2018 constitutional amendment aimed at restoring voting rights to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” The amendment excluded people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”

In a partisan vote last year, the GOP-controlled Legislature interpreted the amendment to require felons to pay court-ordered “legal financial obligations” --- fees, fines, costs and restitution --- to be eligible to vote.

National voting-rights groups challenged the law, arguing that it amounted to an unconstitutional “poll tax” that would prevent “returning citizens” from casting ballots.

Sean Morales-Doyle, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, branded the Florida statute as an extension of the state’s 150-year practice of suppressing voting rights of felons, blacks and poor people.

But Mohammad Jazil, a lawyer who represents DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee, said the law carries out the words --- and the intent --- of the constitutional amendment, which appeared on the 2018 ballot as Amendment 4.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday unveiled the first step in reviving Florida’s economy amid the coronavirus pandemic, announcing that restaurants and many retail stores outside of Southeast Florida can start reopening Monday with limited capacity.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “It’s time for me to be heard. It’s time for people to see the change in me. People can change, and live a different life, do better, become an example, a mentor, all of that. I believe I have accomplished that.” --- Curtis Bryant, a plaintiff in a federal trial that challenges a Florida law designed to carry out Amendment 4, which was aimed at restoring voting rights of felons who have completed their sentences. 

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