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Florida Prepares For Phased-In Reopening To Begin Monday


Several states are now becoming laboratories for reopening. And of those states, one of the biggest is Florida. Governor Ron DeSantis says restaurants and retail stores may open with limited capacity on Monday. A large slice of the American economy and the health of 21 million people are at stake. So are businesses ready?

Mark Wilson is the president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and joins us from Tallahassee. Good morning.

MARK WILSON: Hey. Good morning, Steve. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Is this the right time to reopen?

WILSON: Yeah, look, I think it is. I think a lot of people wanted to open earlier. But you know, when you look at other countries like Singapore and South Korea, you know, that are four to eight weeks ahead of the U.S., we can learn a lot from them. And I think the way Florida handled this 60 days ago has put us in a perfect position for a phased-in reopening that we're going to be going through beginning Monday. So it is the right time to phase this in.

INSKEEP: Although has Florida done enough? People have followed as the beaches stayed open and then closed and then reopened, for example. And there's a technology firm, Dataminr, that analyzes coronavirus hotspots and finds a bunch of them in Florida.

WILSON: Yeah. Look, I think when the history books are written, I think Florida is actually going to be the global model, Steve, not only the American model. If you think of it, we have 22 million people in Florida - we're growing 900 people a day. And you look at states like Illinois and New York and Michigan and Pennsylvania - they completely shut down their economy - they all have significantly more cases than Florida. We not only have slowed this, but some of the decisions we made 30 days ago, 45 days ago, while they might not have been popular to some, they were the right approach for Florida. And I think now we're ready to start the slow reopening of our state, largely because of the decisions that we made that other states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois - they didn't make the decisions, and I think they're paying the price.

INSKEEP: Well, it's going to be interesting to see what happens now as you move into this new phase because we should note that it's not an all-clear signal by Governor Ron DeSantis. Stores and restaurants are told they can operate at 25% capacity. I guess that means every fourth restaurant table, for example. We spoke with a restaurant owner in St. Augustine. The restaurant is Barley Republic Restaurant. The owner is Red Gemmell. And Red said this.

RED GEMMELL: If we were to say open back up with all the overhead doing so, closer to 80 to 100% of your - of a lot of your overhead, generating 25% of your revenue doesn't really help. You know, it's important for people to be able to function financially in their own lives, but it's even more important for them to have lives to function in.

INSKEEP: As symbolically important as it may be to open up restaurants, are you doing this in a way that adds to people's risk without really helping business?

WILSON: Well, look - you bring up an important point, which is the risk. Right? Health and safety has to be job No. 1, no matter what state we're in, no matter what city we're in. So what we're trying to do is balance, you know, how do we protect health and safety while slowly restarting this economy?

And Steve, I think your point's a really good one. Before COVID - right? - if you think about competition and free enterprise, consumers chose restaurants and retail establishments and other places based on the price and the product. As we start going back to restaurants, as we start going back to retailers, now we're also going to be looking for, hey, who's got the safest place to shop? So the beauty of America right now is small businesses, especially restaurants and retailers, they have the ability to say, hey, I have the safest restaurant in town. And so I think safety and health is going to be a big, big part of the restart of any state's economy.

INSKEEP: Just very briefly - do you accept that this is now an experiment for Florida with economic growth and the lives of lots of people at stake?

WILSON: Oh, 100%. And I think when you compare Florida to Singapore and some of the other countries out there, I really think we're going to be leading this by the time the history books are written - absolutely.

INSKEEP: Mr. Wilson, thanks very much. Really appreciate it.

WILSON: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Mark Wilson is the president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.