ORLANDO, FLORIDA - The vice president of the United States walked into a hamburger joint and ordered lunch Wednesday.
That normally would not be headline news. Amid a pandemic, however, it is significant — a singular act to shift the spotlight from a nationwide public health emergency to economic recovery.
Pence, at Beth’s Burger Bar in Orlando, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at his side, stood before the cash register and ordered a cheeseburger with a pickle and a side of fries. The vice president paid for his lunch and the governor’s (a total of$24.72).
It was a token amount toward the recovery of the Sunshine State’s economy, heavily dependent on tourism and crippled by the coronavirus.
The two politicians, before sitting at an indoor table for their meal, mingled with customers who wanted to talk about basketball, not pandemics or politics.
No one wore masks.
Some will see Pence’s seemingly mundane act of ordering a meal as sending a mixed message while the novel coronavirus, having already infected 1.5 million people and killed more than 93,000 in the United States, continues to spread in some areas of the country.
“We really know that we have slowed the spread. Now we’re opening up,” the vice president told the restaurant’s owner, Beth Steele.
“We’re ready to get back to work,” replied Steele, who said she lost 80% of her business during the shutdown, relying on takeout and delivery orders.
The restaurant resumed indoor dining at 25% capacity Monday and 50% capacity Tuesday.
Many remain leery
Despite the urging of the administration of President Donald Trump for America to get back to work, many businesses and potential customers are wary that a sit-down dinner or a professional haircut remain risky.
In great part, bending the curves of soaring unemployment and declining gross domestic product depends on the confidence of the public to resume normal activity. To help ease the concerns of those nervous Americans, Pence’s day trip to Florida was intended to demonstrate it is safe to return to restaurants and other places of public commerce.
“If we don’t get people back to work quickly, it’s over. Orlando is struggling. Orlando is suffering and is in deep depression,” Harris Rosen, the founder and chief executive officer of Rosen Hotels & Resorts, said as he sat alongside Pence at a round-table discussion that included executives of Disney, Universal and Sea World theme parks.
The amusement resort representatives said they were looking at fully reopening as soon as next month but in a way that would maintain, for now, social distancing and by implementing other measures so guests can feel safe, such as requiring masks to be worn.
Florida is generally embracing a robust return to commercial activity, and its choice exemplifies a deep red-blue divide in the country.
Republicans in the red states bristled at what they viewed as draconian measures to keep schools and offices closed and cancel sporting and music events — making the act of just putting a blanket on the beach or in a public park illegal.
Caution in blue states
The blue states with Democratic leadership have been exercising greater caution, cognizant that reopening too fast could prompt a second wave of COVID-19 cases.
Florida’s governor is a Republican and the state helped elect Trump and Pence in 2016. Pollsters see the state as being in play during this year’s election, another reason for the vice president’s visit Wednesday.
Trump, restless in the White House, could soon visit (he is now officially a Florida resident).
The Trump-Pence reelection campaign is reportedly planning for the president to resume campaign rallies. Trump would like to see the events on the scale he has previously enjoyed, with thousands of supporters packed into arenas.
The COVID-19 pandemic could compel social distancing on the campaign trail for some time to come. The president’s reelection team views such events as a way to contrast Trump with the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, who has stayed home amid the coronavirus crisis.
The Biden campaign, like the blue states, is expected to play it safe for a longer period than the Republicans, emphasizing that saving lives is the priority, even if that means prolonging economic misery.