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Restaurants ask DeSantis for more capacity

By NATHAN MAYBERG - | Sep 16, 2020

Gov. Ron DeSantis

nmayberg@breezenewspapers.com

With the rate of new COVID-19 cases slowing down, restaurant operators in the region met with Gov. Ron DeSantis in Fort Myers on Thursday to ask him to loosen restrictions on the industry.

At a roundtable held at Connors Steak & Seafood with restaurateurs including Jay Johnson of Bubba’s Roadhouse & Saloon in Cape Coral and World of Beer CEO Paul Avery, the message to DeSantis was clear: increase the allowable capacity from 50% indoors to drive up business.

DeSantis cited a decline statewide of approximately 70% in the number of COVID-19 patients who are being hospitalized from the peak period of July as a reason to explore opening up restaurants more.

The restaurant owners said Thursday that most of their employees have returned since layoffs and furloughs in March. Many of their workers, though, are facing fewer hours and less income.

DeSantis sympathized with the plight of restaurant workers, the second-largest segment of private-sector workers in the nation. DeSantis said those workers “don’t have massive amounts of wealth” and have struggled through an “emotional roller coaster” these past several months.

“We’re not where we want to be with the restaurants,” he said.

“Obviously you can get infected in a restaurant just like you can get infected if you are around anywhere but the idea that the restaurants are some big driver has just not been borne out by the evidence.”

DeSantis said he didn’t believe a six-foot separation of distance was necessary though he said people should avoid working in close contact. DeSantis conceeded some of the responses to the pandemic costs jobs and “cost people their livelihood.”

Johnson said Bubba’s was hit hard during the pandemic and is down for the year. He currently has 35 employees, with some of them having been with his establishment for more than 20 years.

“It was tough to lay them off in March,” he said.

Some of the younger members of the staff were giving up hours to those with children. He said the restaurant hired everybody back who wanted to return and also hired new staff.

“It sounds like he is listening and it sounds like he is going to do something about it,” Johnson said after the meeting with DeSantis.

His restaurant is currently limited to serving 80 guests compared to 160 before the pandemic.

“We’re mostly indoors,” he said.

That has led to lines outside on the weekends, he said.

“Our community thinks that we are a safe place,” Johnson said.

Avery said World of Beer furloughed 92% of its workforce when the pandemic struck.

“We thought it was in their interest to go on government assistance,” he said.

Avery asked DeSantis to provide relief to the restaurants “for a restoration of normalcy.” The majority of his workforce has returned though some locations have remained closed, including one in Orlando. He said consumer confidence is growing.

DeSantis responded by saying he plans to ask the State Legislature to make permanent an emergency rule allowing to-go restaurants to serve alcohol.

DeSantis also said he has asked President Donald Trump to lift restrictions on immigration from Europe and Brazil even though the rate of new cases of COVID-19 in Europe has surged recently.

“I’m not concerned about” the surge in Europe, he said.

DeSantis said he supported the initial restrictions on immigration but “they have served their purpose.”

DeSantis said the state is providing unemployment benefits of $300 a week for three weeks to those who were unemployed after the $600 federal unemployment payment subsidy ran out, and is hopeful the state can also supply a $300 payment for another week or two on top of the state’s current payout to the unemployed.