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Pensacola issues strict restrictions on events at city-owned venues as COVID-19 cases rise

Jim Little
Pensacola News Journal

Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson has issued new restrictions for events at city-owned venues and parks in response to the growing number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Pensacola area.

The new restrictions limit indoor city-owned venues to only allow 25% of the building's rated capacity and the city will not issue any more permits for outdoor events at city venues, the city announced in a press release Friday morning.

The new guidelines will remain in place until at least Feb. 28.

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Outdoor events already issued a permit or in the process of receiving a permit will be allowed to happen, but must follow new guidelines, city spokeswoman Kayce Lagarde told the News Journal.

The guidelines limit attendance for outdoor events at city-owned venues to 100 people and the events must show control of crowd congestion and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to limit the spread of the virus, including mask-wearing.

The city's press release noted outdoor markets, such as the Palafox Market, will be allowed to operate over the 100-person cap but must follow the other guidelines.

CDC guidelines will be required at indoor events and require approval from the mayor.

Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order last year limiting local governments' power to impose restrictions on businesses because of COVID-19.

The largest city-owned venue is the Saenger Theatre, but City Administrator Keith Wilkins said the venue is managed by a private company so the new restrictions don't technically apply under the mayor's order. However, he said, the theater has already been enforcing nearly identical guidelines for its events.

The largest impact to the guidelines will be at the city's community centers like the Sanders Beach-Corinne Jones Resource Center, which is a popular venue for weddings and other events.

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The new guidelines do not apply to county-owned buildings such as the Pensacola Bay Center or private businesses. Some events, such as Pensacon, have decided on their own to reschedule for later in the year.

Escambia County has experienced an increasing positivity rate in COVID-19 tests over the last month as new cases continue to break records. Forty people have died of the virus over the last week and a half, bringing the death count in the county to 400 as of Wednesday, according to the latest numbers released by the Florida Department of Health.

Daily hospitalizations from the virus have also reached an all-time high with 265 people currently hospitalized at the county's three major hospitals as of Thursday.

Last year, Robinson sent a letter to DeSantis asking for the governor to amend his executive order to allow for more local control to be able to respond to increases in COVID-19 cases. 

DeSantis never responded to the letter, and when asked about it at a press conference in Pensacola on Wednesday, he said he would not support any measure that would lead to fining Floridians.

In a text message to the News Journal, Robinson said his decision to enact new event restrictions isn't related to or impacted by the governor's executive order and the decision was based on current conditions. He said the city has been focused on community centers and city venues since the summer.

"With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations at an all-time high, we felt it was important to take action to help slow the spread and protect the Pensacola community," Robinson said.

Jim Little can be reached at jwlittle@pnj.com and 850-208-9827.