One day after Sarasota City Commission discussion about closing bars and restaurants, city staff receives direction it was hoping for from Florida’s governor

DeSantis orders all bars closed and calls for restaurants to reduce capacity and implement 6-foot minimal separation of dining groups

City Manager Tom Barwin. Photo courtesy City of Sarasota

During the regular Sarasota City Commission meeting on March 16, City Manager Tom Barwin said he wanted to await direction from the Florida Department of Health before proceeding with any restrictions on the operations of bars and restaurants in the face of the spreading novel coronavirus.

About 11 a.m. on March 17, Gov. Ron DeSantis provided that direction. All bars and nightclubs were ordered closed as of 5 p.m. that day, effective for 30 days, DeSantis said.

Additionally, DeSantis’ recommendation for restaurants is similar to what the State of California has implemented, he continued: Restaurants should reduce their operating level to 50% of capacity and ensure that diners are seated no closer together than 6 feet, based on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guideline about “social distancing.”

State leaders are encouraging takeout and delivery from restaurants, he added.

“This is the floor for Florida for the foreseeable future,” DeSantis said. Local government leaders who want to implement stricter provisions will have state support, he pointed out, as situations vary from county to county. Some counties have had no COVID-19 cases thus far, he noted.

On March 16, Sarasota City Manager Barwin talked of having spoken with restaurateurs and bar owners in downtown Sarasota, who already were noting that their business was “way down.”

Over the weekend, he added, he spoke with former City and County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo, whose family members own a number of dining establishments in the community. “Their group and others have already been practicing spacing [restrictions],” Barwin pointed out. The Caragiulos reduced their capacity by 50%, Barwin said.

A number of restaurant owners and managers are interested in focusing on delivery and pickup service, he continued. “They want to keep the employees working; they want to keep a paycheck coming in [for employees].”

They also do not want to have to throw away food, adding up to even more economic losses, unless that is absolutely necessary, Barwin pointed out.

Nonetheless, he continued, “I think we’re going to probably see the self-closure of many of these operations.”

City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo

“I totally agree with what the city manager has said,” City Attorney Robert Fournier told the commissioners. “There’s a balancing of interests there that we have to be mindful of.”

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown stressed that bars and restaurants had been closed in six states as of that time because of state directives.

Still, Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch replied, “I don’t know why we are waiting [to close Sarasota bars and restaurants]. I don’t know why we would …”

“I think that some of the restaurants and bars … are already anticipating this,” she said. “I spoke with [representatives of] some today, as well.” From what she was told, Ahearn-Koch added, business is down about 70%.

“I think we could at least adopt language saying that we strongly, strongly recommend [closings],” she said.

Legal, practical and enforcement concerns

When Commissioner Hagen Brody asked Fournier for his legal opinion on the board’s taking such action, Fournier replied that the applicable city ordinance gives the commission the authority to close private businesses under circumstances such as those created by the spread of COVID-19. The ordinance, he noted, provides the commission “power to protect the public health, safety and welfare. … You can make a very credible argument that, in light of action that been taken [and recommendations of the CDC and the World Health Organization that] the circumstances are significant enough to warrant such action.”

Nonetheless, Fournier continued, “I think we have to anticipate some pushback,” especially in regard to constitutionally protected property rights.

During the height of tourist season, outdoor dining has been popular in downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Restaurateurs and bar owners could point out that the Sarasota County Commission and the state as of that time had not implemented such a directive, he added.

Furthermore, Fournier advised the commissioners not to implement closings of bars and restaurants — in the absence of state recommendations — without checking with Sarasota Police Department Chief Bernadette DiPino and her command staff, as a practical matter.

“We should, I think, to be responsible about it, review our enforcement capabilities,” he continued. If the Police Department does not have the capability of enforcing such restrictions, Fournier added, the city should not impose any.

City Manager Barwin also noted that visitors to the city staying in hotels would need to have some means of getting meals.

Brody advocated for the City of Sarasota to take steps similar to those implemented in the City of Boston: Restaurants are required to reduce their seating capacity by 50% and to adhere to a curfew.

“I think [those options] should remain on the table,” Fournier responded. Through the public health emergency declaration that Barwin made on March 13, in consultation with the mayor, Barwin has the authority to take steps to address restaurant and bar operations, Fournier advised the commissioners.

Before Barwin acted, he added, he felt sure Barwin would “try to keep [them] in the loop …”

Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch. File image

Barwin said he would be discussing changes in the COVID-19 situation on a daily basis with the board members, including decisions offered at the state level.

“Looking to the CDC is the best way to make sure that we’re on solid footing,” Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie said, adding that the city should treat all businesses the same.

Mayor Ahearn-Koch advocated for following the lead of France, whose president, Emmanuel Macron, had announced that all businesses would be closed except grocery stores, bakeries, pharmacies, physicians’ offices, hospitals, gas stations and banks, to control the spread of the virus in that country.

Commissioners Liz Alpert, Brody and Willie Shaw — who participated in the meeting via telephone — agreed with Barwin’s request for the commissioners to let him wait at least 24 hours before taking action on bars and restaurants, with the hope of receiving state guidance.