Florida Reopens Bars and Schools in Risky Return to Normality

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Over the next few weeks, Floridians will undergo a high-stakes Covid-19 experiment whether they like it or not: a return to something resembling normal life.

Starting Monday, the Sunshine State is taking its most daring reopening step yet by ending a ban on drinking in bars, about a month after the state’s coronavirus deaths peaked.

Around the same time, Miami-Dade’s school board is expected to clear the way for reopening America’s fourth-largest district, luring hundreds of thousands of children back to classrooms by the end of the month.

As in other Sun Belt states, the pandemic hit Florida hardest from around June to early August, forcing areas that had already reopened to reinstate restrictions and put return-to-school plans on hold. While Florida’s viral wave has waned, the latest steps come amid uncertainty, according to Jason Salemi, a University of South Florida epidemiologist who notes that Floridians are fresh off Labor Day parties and outings that could have spread the virus.

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He said adding alcohol to the equation could be perilous.

In most of the state, bars can reopen on Monday at 50% occupancy. Although Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has said his county won’t partake in the bar reopening -- keeping famous Miami Beach bars and clubs shuttered -- the measure clears the way for more drinking among recently returned college students and others.

“My big concern is, we know how decision-making deteriorates with alcohol consumption,” said Salemi.

Many of Florida’s biggest universities, including the University of Florida and Florida State University, returned to classes in late August with plans to limit density in residence halls and other areas.

FSU said in an emailed response to questions that it didn’t have any bar-specific rules or restrictions going into effect, but would advise its community to practice social distancing, wear masks and avoid large groups. A University of Florida spokeswoman wasn’t immediately available to discuss the matter.

Back to Class

Just hours after the announcement of the bar reopening, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis appeared in Miami to announce he was moving Miami-Dade and Broward counties into the second of three phases in reopening their economies. They were the last of Florida’s 67 counties to do so.

The move makes way for certain entertainment venues to reopen and removes a hurdle to reopening Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

The school board will now hold a special meeting next week, and the district will field final recommendations from a team of medical experts, with the goal of announcing a return date soon afterward.

Miami-Dade has become a poster child for the challenges of online learning. Since it restarted on Aug. 31, it has been plagued by connectivity issues. A 16-year-old student was arrested in connection with cyber attacks that apparently generated part of the problem.

On Thursday, the school board voted to abandon its partnership with online learning company K12 Inc., following complaints from parents and teachers who said it was confusing. Instead of the much-touted custom platform, the district told teachers to revert to using Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

“Being able to be back in with those teachers, with those mentors that really help their development, I think is absolutely critical,” DeSantis said Friday. “And that will now soon be a reality.”

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