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As COVID Cases Surged, Florida Shut Down Its Business Complaint Portal

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Wilfredo Lee
/
AP
A Miami Beach supermarket limited the number of shoppers and required masks in April.

Florida business regulators shut down a web portal launched to make it easier for the public to file complaints about businesses that violate COVID-19 guidelines last month, just as cases statewide started to surge.

The Department of Business and Professional Regulation created the online form in mid March, but removed it May 29.

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A spokeswoman said the agency eliminated the portal because complaints had dwindled.

“As the state moved into reopening the number of complaints greatly reduced and the agency returned to the standard online form for receiving complaints regarding a licensed business or an individual licensee,” spokeswoman Karen Smith said in an email.

But the department’s own records show the number of complaints doubled from April to May.

Since May 29, when the number of coronavirus cases statewide doubled, the outbreak has continued to accelerate, with numbers steadily climbing. June 20 set a new statewide record with 4,049 cases and on Monday, Miami-Dade hit a new record.

The climbing numbers and uneven compliance led Miami-Dade to crack down on enforcement. Last week, Mayor Carlos Gimenez issued a new executive order saying businesses that failed to follow guidelines would no longer be warned but ordered to close immediately.

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Credit Wilfredo Lee / AP
/
AP
Nick's Bar and Grill in Hollywood outfitted its Capt. Morgan statue with a mask in May to remind patrons to follow COVID guidelines.

Under the order, they will not be allowed to reopen until they sign an affidavit vowing to follow rules or face a $500 fine and up to 180 days in jail.

Mayors in several cities in the county, including Miami, Miami Shores and Key Biscayne, said they would sign orders making masks in public mandatory.

The online portal was launched just before Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered bars and gyms to shutdown. About a week later, he issued ‘Safer At Home’ orders, advising residents to only leave home for essential business. When the state’s reopening began in early May, experts warned that numbers could spike.

During May, the number of complaints to the portal doubled from 1,312 to 2,053. Smith said Monday many of the submissions were questions or comments and not complaints. Among the businesses listed on the form were restaurants, bars, hotels, vacation rentals, barber shops and salons and “other.”

“So when we started reopening, even at 25 to 50 percent, there were complaints that that was not being observed,” she said.

She said the agency is now relying on its existing system to monitor complaints, with inspectors and law enforcement “maintaining an enhanced daily field presence” in which they conduct routine inspections and answer complaints. Businesses that don’t comply with rules will be issued a warning first, she said, and could face other penalties including having their licenses suspended.