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Frivolous Lawsuits, Opening Up Outdoor Spaces at Issue for Re-Open Florida Task Force

Jeffrey R. Davis

Businesses fear opening up their storefronts and getting sued from customers who contract COVID-19.

For the second meeting of the state’s industries hit the hardest by a Florida economy reeling from COVID-19 lockdowns, talks shifted more to the outdoors, but businesses still want swift and clear action.

Dana Young, CEO of VISIT FLORIDA again led the panel, which on Wednesday focused on outdoor recreation, professional sports, theme parks and retail. The prior meeting, the day before, mainly focused on lodging and accommodations.

One shared concern raised by business interests is the fear customers could contract COVID-19 at their business and slap them with a lawsuit.

St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes is writing up legislation for a possible Special Session or the 2021 Session to protect businesses against those lawsuits.

“Asymptomatic people working in their faculty could spread the disease and lawsuits could come from that,” he told Florida Politics.

AJ de Moya, with The de Moya Group, said businesses have never faced lawsuits for the flu or other diseases.

“I’ve got some friends of mine that run DOW 30 companies in Florida, and they are concerned that opening up their offices will put them at traumatic risk, and I think it’s really important and we protect this,” he said.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry spoke about his city’s decision to reopen beaches last weekend and to enforce the rules with megaphones and on carts, a minimalist method he said was working. Opening up a larger space could help give Floridians freedom to exercise and enjoy nature.

“I believe when you open your beaches or your parks, which we’ve also done, a dictator-style we’re going to come arrest you I don’t believe is the way forward,” he said.

Curry added that photographs taken over the weekend inaccurately portrayed a rush and crowding of people at Jacksonville Beach.

Beaches are open from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. for recreation like swimming or taking walks. Sun bathing, laying out blankets and towels, chairs and grills are not allowed on the city’s beaches and groups must follow social distancing practices.

And Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said the department was weighing the usual crowding at state parks before easing restrictions there.

John Sprouls, CEO of Universal Orlando Resort and executive vice president of Universal Parks & Resorts, said the parks planned to utilize space, health screenings and sanitation efforts to keep guests and employees safe.

“We have a greater ability to practice and enforce social distancing while still allowing guests to experience our parks,” Sprouls said, adding that resorts essentially have the same public services as cities, like medical services.

Universal Resorts plans to expand an existing virtual queuing app used at Volcano Bay and utilizing parks’ full acreage to promote social distancing. The queuing app piqued the interest of one airline industry representative on the call, who said airports could use such a service for security lines and boarding airplanes.

Originally, the PGA Tour planned to keep golfing going and open to the public with social distancing measures. But as federal and state officials began handing down advisories against massed gatherings, the final nail in the coffin for the PGA Tour was learning that Disney and Universal resorts, with swathes of open land similar to a golf course, were closing.

Len Brown, the PGA Tour’s executive vice president and chief legal officer, noted that its tournaments often benefit various charities that have also missed out the tour’s revenue. Golfing would begin June 8 under the tour’s current timeline.

The National Basketball Association and National Hockey League hope to resume the regular season over the summer, said Matthew Caldwell, president and CEO of the Florida Panthers. After a period of team training, the NHL hopes to resume the season in July.

Like during Tuesday’s meeting, Walter Carpenter with the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) emphasized the need or small business employees to return to work. On top of reopening businesses, he emphasized the need for customers, products, services and loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

“I think, as we move forward, it’s important not to overly regulate, not to be overly restricted,” he said.

With PPP loans only reaching 27% of Florida’s small businesses that have applied for funding, increasing funding and revenue is a necessity to keep businesses alive. According to an NFIB study, 15% of small businesses could not last more than a month without more funding and 35% could last one to two months.

Unlike other businesses and groups represented in the group of hardest-hit industries, Walmart is an essential business. On Tuesday, DeSantis pushed back against the essential versus nonessential services framing public health officials use, instead elevating the importance of risk levels.

“The more and more I go through it, I think think that that’s an illusory distinction,” he said. “Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s terribly helpful even when you’re talking about a pandemic.”

Walmart is asking employees and customers to wear face masks, using Plexiglas barriers and using floor decals to reinforce proper social distancing measures. It has also boosted the number of employees to help restocking and sanitization.

“The creation of industry standards that can be communicated across the state to inform our employees and our customers will be very helpful,” said Monesia Brown, Walmart’s director of public affairs and government relations.

And with employees who have been shut out from work or are afraid to go back, businesses raised mental health and framing the reopening as a good thing as important for employees’ mental health. Dr. Lillian Rivera, a former health officer at the Miami-Dade County Department of Health, said county health departments can help connect businesses to resources and services to get employees the help they need.

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