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With Economy Starting Phased Reopening, Lawmakers And Economists Try To Take Stock Of The Damage

Virus Outbreak Florida Reopens
John Raoux/AP
Lauren Durchslag, general manager at the Tap Room at Dubsdread golf course, checks on things before opening for business on Monday, May 4, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. Many Florida restaurants were allowed to open today with outdoor tables six feet apart and indoor seating at 25% capacity. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

The state’s economy has taken what Governor Ron DeSantis calls its first “small step” to reopening. Now, lawmakers and economists are trying to get a sense of the hit they’ve taken from weeks of closures.

It’s now been a week since restaurants and retail businesses were allowed to open at 25 percent indoor capacity. Restaurants can also use outdoor seating, provided social distancing guidelines are observed. But for some restaurants, customers are still coming in at a trickle.

COVID-19’s impact on consumer behavior hasn’t been lost on Ramon Hernandez, owner of Pipo’s Cuban café in St. Petersburg.

“You know, we’re open now to 25 percent, if the state would’ve opened up at 100 percent, it wouldn’t have made any difference – people are still conscientious of going out to eat,” Hernandez said. “Once we’ve opened up, I mean I’ve had four tables sit inside the restaurant, as a whole.”

Hernandez told the story of his business’ struggles to Democratic Congressman Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg. Crist held a conference call this week to hear from the hospitality industry.

Driving customers to their business amid capacity restrictions isn’t the only thing weighing heavily on owners. Some fear they might be vulnerable to lawsuits from people claiming they got sick at an establishment – and want some sort of protection.

Ibrahim Moussa owns Clearwater restaurant Abe’s Place Tap & Grill.

“We are not asking for immunity, but some sort of a safe harbor when we open, if we do our job, and do it to the best of our ability,” Moussa told Crist.

Crist is lawyer who formerly served as Florida’s attorney general.

“This is termed, in a legal sense, an act of God. So, it’s hard to hold any particular business (accountable) – not that people don’t try, we have a litigious society,” Crist said in response to Moussa’s concerns.

The second-term congressman expects coming legislation from Washington will include some sort of protection for business owners who do their part to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“I think additionally, in the legislation, previous and going forward, some kind of legitimate immunity would be included,” Crist said.

Meanwhile, economists are trying to gauge the impacts on the state’s agriculture commodities and the industries that harvest, transport and sell them – as well as marine and aquaculture industries.

Christa Court is the lead researcher on a wide-ranging study underway by University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

We’re covering anything from agricultural production, to processing, as well as transportation – that includes aquaculture,” Court told WFSU. “And then we have several other surveys that include marine-based commercial fishing, recreational fishing, for-hire and charter operations that do dive tours.”

There’s still more than a week left to collect respondents’ submissions, Court discussed some of the study’s early findings:

“With respect to agriculture, I would say that we’re seeing nearly all operations report losses of some kind. So if we were to look at what we’ve seen from different commodity groups … something like horticultural crops, where we’ve got a decent response rate so far – these are items that are grown in nurseries and greenhouses – they’re reporting individual losses ranging from 30 to 90 percent in terms of sales revenue, compared to the same period of last year.”

The study’s goal is to inform decision making at various levels of government when it comes to disaster relief and recovery. There are individual surveys for businesses in five categories. Businesses interested in responding can do so by May 15, by contacting their local UF/IFAS county extension office.

The state Department of Business and Professional Regulation this week launched a website meant to allow people who see businesses violating the 25 percent rule or any other provision of DeSantis’ “Phase 1” of reopening, to report it.

But ultimately, enforcement of the rules falls largely on local law enforcement. In the Capital City, Tallahassee Police Department spokesman Kevin Bradshaw says the agency will provide enforcement in the same way it did for the Governor’s safer-at-home order.

“We do understand that there’s concern, maybe, among some people that we would be proactively sending officers into businesses with a tape measure and proactively ensuring compliance – but that is not something we did before and we do not plan to do that now,” Bradshaw said Monday.

Penalties for violating the rules could bring a second-degree misdemeanor charge and a fine up to $500.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.