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Florida bans bar alcohol consumption as coronavirus spikes

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Florida banned alcohol consumption at its bars Friday as its daily confirmed coronavirus cases neared 9,000, a new record that is almost double the previous mark set just two days ago.

The Florida agency that governs bars announced the ban on Twitter just minutes after the Department of Health reported 8,942 new confirmed cases, topping the previous record of 5,500 set Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced he would sign an executive order closing beaches in the county over the Fourth of July weekend.

“I have decided that the only prudent thing to do to tamp down this recent uptick is to crack down on recreational activities that put our overall community at higher risk,” he said in a statement.

State officials have attributed much of the new outbreak to young adults flocking to bars after they reopened in most of the state three weeks ago, with many of them ignoring social distancing restrictions aimed at lowering the virus's spread.

Bars, like restaurants, were supposed to limit patrons to 50% of their normal capacity, under the state's emergency orders. Patrons had to sit at tables, with groups 6 feet (2 meters) apart. No congregating at the bar or on the dance floor was permitted.

The new order prohibits any establishment that makes more than 50% of its revenue from alcohol sales from serving alcohol for consumption on site. Bars are still permitted to sell alcohol in sealed containers for consumption offsite. Restaurants that primarily sell food can still serve alcohol to customers seated at tables.

Business and Professional Regulations Secretary Halsey Beshears said he issued the order because too many bars and patrons were breaking the rules, overwhelming his department’s inspectors.

“This was more than we could keep up with,” Beshears said.

He said people got tired of being cooped up and maybe thought the threat of coronavirus had lessened because news coverage shifted to the protests caused by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.

“People in general just wanted to get out and experience a normalcy,” he said. He said there is no timetable for rescinding the order.

“Sadly, 90% are getting it right. It’s the other 10% that are ruining it for everybody,” he said.

The state had suspended the license of a popular Orlando bar near the University of Central Florida earlier this week after at least 13 employees and 28 patrons tested positive. The bar may have been linked to 150 cases, state health officials said at the time.

More than 24,000 new cases have been reported statewide since Saturday, more than a fifth of the 111,724 cases confirmed since March 1. The death toll climbed Friday to 3,366, a one-day increase of 39.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday that he still doesn't plan to issue a statewide order requiring masks. He said that is best handled at the county and city level. Miami, other cities and several counties including Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Orange are requiring masks in public places.

DeSantis said the median age for people testing positive has dropped from in the 60s early in the outbreak to 33 now. He said that has helped decrease the fatality rate — the disease hits older people harder — but may be increasing the spread as younger adults are more likely to be asymptomatic and to congregate. He urged younger people to wear masks to avoid spreading the disease to their older family members and others who have underlying medical conditions.

“While this may not be affecting you negatively, you can pass it along to other folks,” he said.

State officials have said the youth of the newly infected may be why the rising infection total hasn’t been accompanied by an increase in deaths, which have averaged about 35 per day for a month. Dr. Rajiv Bahl, who works in an Orlando emergency room, said treatment methods are also improving.

Tampa bartender Colleen Corbett said she is worried about being unemployed again, but thinks the state's action is “the right move since no one could follow the guidelines and everyone was getting sick.” Most of her bartender friends have been infected and she is awaiting test results.

Corbett, 30, said the two bars where she works have been packed. She said staff weren't required to wear masks and almost no customers did.

“It was like they forgot there was a pandemic or just stopped caring,” Corbett said.

Bruce Owens, 66, wearing a mask as he walked Friday in St. Petersburg, said he isn't surprised by the state's skyrocketing case numbers. He blamed it on state officials.

“They’ve handled it extremely poorly,” he said. “They haven’t really listened to the experts.”

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Farrington reported from Tallahassee. AP reporters Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg and Cody Jackson in Palm Beach Gardens contributed to this report.