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Key To Reopening Florida? Maintain Coronavirus Safety Guidelines, Task Force Says

restaurant closed sign
CARL LISCIANDRELLO/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA
Gov. Ron DeSantis said how different industries implement changes will be important to restoring consumer confidence because of the 'huge hysteria that has swept the country."

Getting people to dine out, board airplanes and visit resorts will require increased confidence that businesses are aggressively implementing enhanced hygiene measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, members of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ task force on reopening the state said Tuesday.

No reopening timelines were set as the task force’s Industry Working Group met. Also, no votes were taken as members appeared to support the need for heightened safety guidelines for workers and customers in the hospitality industry.

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While the numbers of cases and deaths in Florida continue to grow from the deadly respiratory disease, DeSantis on Tuesday said he anticipates many businesses that are currently considered “non-essential” will be able to reopen as risks of the novel coronavirus get lower and if consumers gain confidence about safety.

“If people can fight over toilet paper at Costco, I got to think there's a way that you can run a restaurant safely,” DeSantis said. “If people are going to line up to go to the grocery store, then I gotta think there's ways that you would be able to do some of the other things that we would do.”

DeSantis said how different industries implement changes will be important to restoring consumer confidence because of the “huge hysteria that has swept the country.”

“A lot of people were really, really scared and many of them still are scared,” DeSantis said. “Are they going to have the confidence to want to do some of the things that we used to do?”

DeSantis’ Re-Open Florida Task Force held its first meeting Monday, with the governor taking digs at "the media and the expert class" for predicting Florida's hospitals would be full and at governors of other states for implementing “ham-fisted” stay-at-home directives.

Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young, whose agency oversees tourism marketing, said Tuesday the state has eased into its stay-at-home orders, and “now our job is to look at how to appropriately ease out of it.”

Changes offered by working group members could mean maintaining recommendations about physical distancing, limiting how many customers could be inside businesses at a time and providing sick days for workers.

Jose Cil, CEO of Restaurant Brands International, said such guidelines are being implemented through the company, which owns Burger King, Tim Hortons and Popeyes restaurants.

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Cil said the restaurants are requiring daily health screening of employees that will include infrared temperature gauges, continued use of gloves and masks, increased frequency of employee handwashing, minimizing the exchange of cash and having hand sanitizer available for guests who will dine in.

“The folks in the front lines need to feel comfortable that they're working in a restaurant that is conscious and conscientious about these issues and our guests need to know that as well,” Cil said.

PGA Tour Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer Len Brown said customers could also be encouraged to carry their own pens to sign credit card receipts.

“So even in the credit card process they don’t have to pass a pen back and forth,” Brown said.

Cil also stressed the need to provide paid sick leave of up to 14 days.

“Typically, in our business there's no hourly employees, there's no paid sick leave,” Cil said. “But given the importance of folks taking this seriously and not scrambling to go to work, even if they're feeling ill, we made a policy very early on that that anyone who exhibits kind of like the symptoms of COVID-19, the manager and or medical professional suggesting that they go home to get better.”

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Young said Visit Florida is already working on a four-phase marketing “rebound” plan in response to the virus, which has devastated the state’s tourism industry.

“Travel has proven to be resilient industry, and people will travel again when they feel safe to do so,” she said.

However, Young said the state hasn’t “fully experienced the impact of the economic downturn on travel” even with hotel revenue in Florida down more than $1.6 billion from March 1 to April 11, compared to the same period a year earlier. People flying into Florida are down more than 65 percent, with international flights off nearly 80 percent.

Still, Young said people are visiting the “inspirational vacation planning content” on the company’s website at levels prior to the COVID-19 shutdown.

“This tells us that people want to know if it is safe to travel to Florida, because the desire to visit our states still exists,” Young said.

The first travelers in the marketing plan are expected to be Floridians who want to explore once the stay-at-home order is lifted. Later phases of the plan will be to start attracting U.S. and international travelers as they become more comfortable traveling further away from home.

“A critical part of this plan is focusing on expanding Visit Florida's ongoing marketing efforts for the next two to three years because our economic rebound will take time,” said Young, whose agency’s authorization was extended this year by lawmakers to Oct. 1, 2023.

House leaders had sought to eliminate the agency on July 1. But Visit Florida backers pointed to its role in marketing the state amid negative media coverage of issues such as hurricanes, red tide, algae and diseases outbreaks.

Members of DeSantis’ task force are expected to hold a series of meetings this week. The governor wants recommendations from the task force’s executive committee --- comprised of county mayors from Southeast Florida, state elected Republican leaders and officials from businesses such as Disney World, Universal Orlando, Publix, Florida Power & Light, AT&T, Tampa General Hospital, Raymond James Financial Services and Lockheed Martin --- by the end of the week.