South Florida bars packed after Gov. gives OK for Phase 3 reopening

Executive order signed Friday lifts most social distancing, mask guidelines

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – On Fort Lauderdale Beach, those with months of quarantine-driven bar withdrawal showed up, showed off and toasted each other back to some semblance of normal life.

“I’m healthy, I’m strong and I feel comfortable with all my friends,” Dan Gibby, who was out enjoying his Saturday at the Elbo Room, said.

In an unexpected and surprising announcement on Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis lifted all restrictions on restaurants and other businesses in Florida in a move to reopen the state’s economy despite the spread of the coronavirus.

With that green light, bars and clubs were allowed to reopen.

His three-page executive order prohibits local governments from capping capacity at anything less than 50%. Statewide, there will be no capacity restrictions. It also did away with any fines related to COVID-19. On Saturday, Florida reported 2,795 new cases of COVID-19, along with 14,022 resident deaths and 168 non-resident deaths from COVID-19.

Miami’s Mayor Francis Suarez has more than a few concerns.

“One of the things that concerns me the most is our mask mandate. I’m really concerned that the cases are going to continue to spike and then we may have to go back to a situation that we’re working so hard to avoid.”

He added that the governor’s order is confusing and risky.

“It’s not very clear as to what can and can’t be done,” Suarez said.

His counterpart in Fort Lauderdale also weighed in.

“It left a lot of us wondering where do we go from here?” Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said. “The governor’s order was so open ended that business owners really had no direction as to what to do.”

Broward County issued a new executive order five hours after the governor, which states that bars still must comply with distancing requirements and capacity limitations. The order allows bars, pubs, nightclubs, adult entertainment establishments, banquet halls, breweries, cigar bars, and any other establishment that is licensed by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulations to sell food and/or alcohol to operate, provided they are in compliance with Attachment 2 of the county’s Emergency Order.

“Just like restaurants, small groups — I think that’s what we’re intending for bars as well,” Trantalis said.

Both mayors said to expect new regulations in the coming days.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber called the move by DeSantis political — and unsafe in South Florida, which has had the highest concentration of the state’s COVID-19 cases.

“I don’t think anyone in Miami-Dade County knew this was coming,” Gelber said. “I think we were going in the right direction. The governor just wants to follow Trump’s lead as much as possible.”

In Davie, Gaffer’s Pub Owner Debbie Qualls said the small, family run business suffered financially through the pandemic.

“We’ve had to pay the rent, the electric, all the bills. If it was too much longer, we wouldn’t be here,” Qualls said.

The pub was closed for six months so reopening is what she calls a life saver.

Qualls said, however, that safety remains a priority.

“Everybody is real careful in here,” regular Gaffers bar patron Bob Vaughn said.

Trantalis hopes people continue to remain aware and stay safe.

“It does no one any good — bar owners, bar patrons, the community at large — to not continue to respect the safety protocols.”

RELATED: See DeSantis' latest executive order, Broward County’s emergency order below:

About the Authors:

In January 2017, Hatzel Vela became the first local television journalist in the country to move to Cuba and cover the island from the inside. During his time living and working in Cuba, he covered some of the most significant stories in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba. 

Michelle F. Solomon is the podcast producer/reporter/host of Local 10's original, true-crime podcast The Florida Files and a digital journalist for Local