Miami-Dade will let restaurant dining rooms reopen Aug. 31 after nearly two months of emergency closures to fight the spread of COVID-19.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he was loosening the rules as the county’s infection rate hovered near the red-line level of 10%.

“This does not mean this is over, by a long-shot,” Gimenez said in an online press conference. “While we’re heading in the right direction, we’re not out of the woods.”

The move by Gimenez, a Republican candidate in Florida’s 26th Congressional District, follows pressure from city leaders, restaurant owners, county commissioners and others. Hours before Gimenez made his announcement, Hialeah’s mayor declared he would order city police to stop enforcing county restrictions that since July 9 have banned most indoor dining at commercial establishments.

Gimenez also faced criticism for loosening the rules too quickly. County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, running to succeed Gimenez as mayor, said Miami-Dade should only allow restaurants to operate at 25% capacity indoors, rather than return to the 50% capacity that Gimenez plans when dining rooms reopen Monday. “We cannot repeat the same mistakes by declaring victory too soon,” she said in a statement.

The new rules only take effect after Gimenez signs an emergency order, so the final details aren’t known. Gimenez outlined a set of rules that are stricter in some ways and looser in others than the ones restaurants faced during the time when indoor dining was allowed between mid-May and early July.

Gimenez said the prior cap on four customers per table would increase to six — a concession that drew concern from one of his top COVID advisers. He also said restaurants must keep exterior doors and windows open to promote ventilation, and switch air conditioners to run at all times to maximize air circulation. Customers also must wear masks until drinks or food are served at a table, a tweak from the prior rule that waived mask rules when at restaurant tables.

Esteban “Steve” Bovo Jr., the other commissioner running to replace a term-limited Gimenez, was an early critic of the mayor’s July order to close restaurant dining rooms. He mostly embraced Gimenez’s lifting of the indoor dining ban, but said he wanted a higher capacity cap for restaurants. “This is an encouraging step in the right direction for the real job creators in Miami-Dade County — small businesses,” he said in a statement.

Gimenez’s decision sets up another test for Miami-Dade as it recovers from its second surge in COVID cases. After using emergency powers to shut down businesses declared non-essential in March, Gimenez allowed most to reopen in May and June.

But the recovery from the first COVID surge was short-lived, and Gimenez began imposing restrictions again ahead of the July 4 holiday. He ordered casinos closed and imposed a ban on indoor dining. Outdoor dining remained legal.

Some other mayors in support

Mike Davey, the Key Biscayne mayor, said city leaders supported the Gimenez plan, at least for now.

“Nobody spoke up and said they thought it was a bad idea to open interior spaces,” Davey said after Gimenez conducted a briefing with local mayors. “But we’re also very mindful that, if we see a spike, they’re probably gonna shut it back down.”

Among those in support of the move is Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who had criticized Gimenez’s decision to close indoor dining in early July. Suarez said contact tracing data from the state indicates that a relatively small number of people have said they were exposed at restaurants, while more say their infections likely came from the workplace, at home or from an unknown location.

“I’m not saying it’s not possible and there couldn’t be evidence in the future that indicates it’s a real danger,” Suarez said. “I just haven’t seen it.”

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said his city would likely follow the county’s lead on reopening restaurants and not impose stricter rules that kept restaurants in Miami Beach closed an extra week when Gimenez lifted restrictions on non-essential businesses in May. He said news of the looser rules at restaurants shouldn’t make residents more at ease with the broader COVID risk.

“No one should interpret this as a green light or ‘all clear,’ as we need to be cautious and continue to follow the rules diligently,” he said.

Tuesday’s news amplified a week of loosening COVID rules in Miami-Dade. On Monday, Florida Gov. Ron Desantis joined his fellow Republican, Gimenez, at Hard Rock Stadium to announce state permission for spectators to return for football games under a 20% capacity cap and enhanced rules on masks and social distancing.

The changes in restaurant rules also overlaps with reports of COVID cases at the University of Miami as dormitories reopen and classes resume. “I’ve asked for a meeting with the University of Miami to see what they’re doing about it,” Gimenez said. “This is concerning to me. This is how we started some time ago, we saw this spike in young people. We need to curtail as much of that as possible.”

Some restaurateurs plan extra precautions

Several South Florida restaurant owners said they plan to take additional steps when they are allowed to reopen.

Joe’s Stone Crab owner Stephen Sawitz said the iconic South Beach establishment will require guests to sign in with contact information to aid with tracing in case of a COVID-19 case once the restaurant reopens in October.

“If anyone so much as sneezes, they’re going home,” he said. “Nobody’s taking a chance.”

He called the Gimenez announcement a welcome move toward relief from an historic crisis for the region’s hospitality industry.

“This is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Sawitz said.

Sergio’s Cuban restaurant owner Carlos Gazitúa said doctors and infectious disease specialists on the mayor’s call encouraged employees to get flu shots as soon as they become available. He is looking into bringing medical professionals to his six open restaurants to offer the shots because people can contract COVID-19 and the flu at the same time.

“I feel positive that this is our path forward,” Gazitúa said.

Dr. Aileen Marty, a Florida International University infectious disease specialist and part of a group of medical experts advising Gimenez, gave a qualified endorsement of the mayor’s plan. “The risk is significant,” she said, because “we are still at a much higher viral burden in the community today than we were when we opened in May.”

In May, hospitals reported fewer than 700 COVID admissions. On Tuesday, COVID admissions were just below 1,000 countywide. The county’s two-week average for “positivity” — the portion of COVID tests that come back positive — was at 8% in late May. On Tuesday, it remained just above 10%. The county’s stated goal for positivity rate is for the two-week average to be below 10%.

Marty said she was “not particularly comfortable” with Gimenez’s looser seating rules for tables but remains “cautiously optimistic that people will be careful.” She said restaurant customers shouldn’t sit at tables of six if they are dining with people from other households.

Gimenez said he rejected calls by restaurant owners to change the 10 p.m. curfew he also imposed in July in an effort to discourage late-night socializing. He said any changes to the curfew would wait until after the Labor Day weekend, giving Miami-Dade time to see if looser rules at restaurants cause COVID statistics to get worse.

Forced to clear out by 10 p.m., many restaurants say the curfew costs them seatings during peak dining hours and worsens an already devastating loss of business from the coronavirus economic slowdown. Restaurants in the northern end of the county face direct competition in Broward, where restaurants already allow limited indoor dining and can serve until 11 p.m.

Restaurant owners have been vocal opponents of Gimenez’s July actions. Last-minute lobbying prompted Gimenez to reverse a prior decision to close restaurants entirely in July,and the pressure has been building to reverse his ban on indoor dining. At Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, newly reelected Commissioner Joe Martinez said Gimenez “unfairly singled out” restaurants in July, and recalled a recent outing with his wife as an example of why outdoor dining alone would doom restaurants in the South Florida summer.

“We were dying,” he said, “and then we got rained on.”

Miami Herald staff writer Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.

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