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What Is An 'Essential' Worker? Gov. DeSantis May Broaden His Definition

Gov. Ron DeSantis at the podium
Gov. Ron DeSantis said even his broad approach contained "some serious limitations" as shown by how most businesses have been able to operate with health and physical-distancing requirements in place.

Gov. Ron DeSantis suggested Friday a further broadening of what constitutes an “essential” worker as he continues efforts to revive the coronavirus-staggered economy.

However, bars will have to wait for bigger declines in coronavirus case numbers before they can start pouring drinks for customers again.

“Of course, I'm willing to look at it, but I would just tell people, you know, we need to get through this period first,” DeSantis said when asked about the prospect of reopening bars and craft breweries while appearing at a transportation event at the Hilton Orlando-Bonnet Creek Resort.

The state Department of Health on Friday reported 7,686 new coronavirus cases, with a test positivity rate above 10 percent. The new cases exceeded the daily average of 7,036 since the start of the month. The state also reported 180 additional deaths. The average daily number of new deaths since the start of August is 146.

In July, the daily average of deaths was just under 108.

DeSantis, however, pointed Friday to a decline in emergency room visits by people with “COVID-like illness” and a 20 percent drop in coronavirus hospitalizations as he highlighted his economic reopening efforts, which began on May 4.

That also drove DeSantis to revisit his displeasure in defining workers as “essential” or “non-essential.”

When he issued an order that largely shut down the economy in April, DeSantis tried to be as broad as possible in declaring what constituted an essential worker.

The definition included health care professionals, first responders, grocers and gas-station workers. But it also applied to a variety of other types of jobs, ranging from people who provide legal services and work at engineering firms to people who work at hardware stores and office-supply companies and provide food takeout and delivery.

Clothing stores, hair salons, tanning salons, gyms, movie theaters, bars and tattoo shops were among those deemed non-essential businesses.

And with restaurants initially limited to selling takeout food and the hospitality industry as a whole hammered when travel came to a halt, unemployment rocketed from 2.8 percent in February to 13.8 percent in April.

DeSantis said even his broad approach contained “some serious limitations” as shown by how most businesses have been able to operate with health and physical-distancing requirements in place. Many types of businesses, such as hair salons, have been allowed to reopen since May.

“I think most of the places have done a really good job,” DeSantis said. “I mean, I remember when everyone was so concerned about like a hair salon. You'd go in there. It's like an operating room. I mean, they're really keeping it clean.”

But not everyone has done a good job.

DeSantis offered a partial defense Friday of bar and craft-brewery operators, noting that in South Florida --- where the pandemic has hit hardest --- bars and nightclubs didn’t reopen like they did in the rest of the state in early June as part of his second phase of reopening.

“My sense is people will get together,” DeSantis said. “They'll just do it in private residences, and I think that's what was happening in South Florida.”

But DeSantis has backed Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears, who on June 26 prohibited the sale of alcohol for on-site consumption at businesses that derive more than 50 percent of their gross revenue from the sale of alcohol. The move essentially closed most bars and nightclubs.

Beshears made the move because bars were violating requirements that had been put in place to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. Those requirements, for example, limited occupancy in bars.

“You know, we had a very measured roll-out on this for the phase-two counties,” DeSantis said, referring to counties outside South Florida. “And it was not having them operate like they used to. … if a restaurant can do 50 percent (occupancy) and serve your food, why can't you just go in and drink wine or do that. And that was the vision. And that (the requirements) just wasn't something that was followed.”

Beshears has started to meet privately with craft-brewery and bar owners to discuss ways for the businesses to reopen. But he has not made announcements about what has been discussed.

On Thursday, DeSantis signed an executive order intended to get restaurant wait staff and non-health care workers back on the job quicker after testing positive for COVID-19.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month put out new symptom-based testing guidance that would reduce the quarantine time for people not showing symptoms while recovering from the virus.

“Basically, what the CDC said is, you know, if you're somebody that tested positive and you go 10 days without symptoms, then you're cleared to come back because you're not going to be infectious at that point,” DeSantis said Friday. “And that's just based on the experience of dealing with the illness.”

Previously, restaurant employees who tested positive for COVID-19 were required to show two consecutive negative tests before going back into the workplace.

Restaurants must set up screening protocols under the updated federal guidelines. The guidelines also removed a requirement that employees couldn’t go to work for two weeks after traveling by air or cruise ships.