The next three weeks will be critical in measuring how the recent rollback of Covid-19 restrictions affects South Florida residents and businesses, Miami Mayor Frances Suarez and Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance CEO Bob Swindell said Wednesday during a panel discussion moderated by Greenspoon Marder co-founder Gerry Greenspoon.
"It was a confusing weekend and we're still trying to clarify things," Suarez said about Gov. Ron DeSantis' decision move Florida into the third and final phase of its reopening plan. "The concern is, if we see another spike in cases, all the progress we've made until this point will go backwards."
Under phase three, all Florida businesses, including bars and restaurants, can operate at 100% indoor capacity even if they cannot distance tables six feet apart as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends.
DeSantis also suspended all fines and penalties for violating local Covid-19 public health orders, such as county or city mask mandates.
There have been more than 170,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Miami-Dade – accounting for 24% of all Florida cases – and 3,280 deaths since March. Broward County follows with 77,200 cases and 1,396 deaths, and then Palm Beach County with 46,552 cases and 1,369 deaths, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Miami-Dade County's 14-day average positive rate for Covid-19 cases was 4.44% on Sept. 28. The county's daily positive rate rose slightly to 4.8% on Sept. 29.
"I don't think it's out of turn to say entering phase three is a gamble," Suarez said.
Both Suarez and Swindell said they are concerned the lifted restrictions will result in a spike of virus infections just as the region enters its busiest time of the year for tourism.
That starts this month with the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, one of the first large in-person events to take place since the outbreak began. The boat show is a major money maker for the region's marine and hospitality industries, with a $1.3 billion economic impact in 2019 alone.
"We want a show that reflects a thoughtful approach to maintaining Covid safety guidelines," Swindell said. "This a reflection of South Florida and I hope we can lose the moniker of being a virus 'hotspot.'"
Suarez said it's possible Miami will have to reverse business openings if Covid-19 cases rise after entering phase three, a turn of events he said most small businesses cannot afford. Almost 4,000 businesses in the Miami area have either temporarily or permanently closed since March, according to a recent report from Yelp.
"We have to hope the governor is right," Suarez said. "If phase three works, it will be a great thing because it will accelerate business openings. If it doesn't work, we'll be in crisis control."