Palm Beach County — the home of President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort — can start reopening its businesses next week, joining other parts of Florida that began allowing restaurants and retail shops to open their doors this week under certain limitations, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday.
Restaurants and shops in Palm Beach County can reopen provided they keep indoor capacity at 25% starting next Monday. The governor said he hopes two other South Florida counties that are still under restrictions to stop the spread of the new coronavirus — Broward and Miami-Dade — can start reopening businesses the following week.
“In order for Florida to come back, we need Palm Beach County in a leadership role," DeSantis said at a news conference in West Palm Beach.
DeSantis partially lifted his “safer at home” order Monday, allowing restaurants and retail shops to begin operating at 25% capacity around Florida. Excluded from the initial reopening plan were the three South Florida counties that have been the epicenter of the pandemic in the state.
But the governor said Palm Beach County had been trending in the right, downward direction in terms of residents testing positive for the virus.
“It won’t happen overnight but this community is eager to move forward,” said Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner.
With some of the nation's most expensive houses, Palm Beach County is home to Mar-a-Lago, which serves as Trump’s refuge from Washington. The president often spends his time there mixing work, business and pleasure in the company of dues-paying members. It has laid off 153 workers during the pandemic.
Earlier in the day, most of Florida’s Democratic congressional delegation urged DeSantis, a Republican, not to loosen restrictions meant to stop the spread of the coronavirus until he can put in place adequate testing, contact tracing and the ability to isolate sick residents.
The U.S. lawmakers said in a letter to the Republican governor that Floridians would be at risk without those measures in place as businesses that have been closed because of the pandemic start to reopen.
“While we fully recognize the tremendous burden placed on the economy by stay-at-home orders and closed businesses, we urge you to prioritize the health and safety of Floridians above all else,” the letter said. “A rushed reopening may very well serve only to increase the human loss caused by an already historic public health crisis, as states moving forward with reopening are seeing increases in new COVID-19 cases.”
DeSantis defended his approach on Friday as “safe, smart.”
“We are being deliberate. We are being methodical about this because we want to do this the right way,” DeSantis said.
At a news conference in northeast Florida, DeSantis also announced that infected patients from long-term facilities who do not require hospitalization could be cared for at a skilled nursing facility in Jacksonville. The action was being taken, he said, to better keep infected elders from spreading the disease to others in their facility.
The governor made that announcement during a news conference at the facility, where he defended the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic, saying state officials acted to stay ahead of infections by aggressively seeking to stem the spread of the virus across the state's elder care facilities.
According to records released by state officials — only after prodding by news organizations under the state's public records laws — there have been more than 1,400 infected long-term care residents across 424 long-term care facilities as May 1. More than 400 have died, according to those records.
“Very early on we knew that this was a disease that had a disproportionate effect particularly on elderly that have comorbidities,” the governor said. “We acted decisively early on to protect long-term care facilities.”
DeSantis said that included sending nearly 10 million masks, 1 million gloves and 500,000 face shields to long-term care facilities, as well as establishing what he called “strike teams” to do surveillance testing at the facilities. But the data released by state officials have come under scrutiny because some of the data does not square with other available information.
As of Friday morning, the state had recorded more than 39,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with the number of deaths from the disease now approaching 1,700 people.