Government largely closed as governor pushes other reopenings

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Governor Ron DeSantis removes his mask after arriving at Universal Studios Florida in Orlando to participate in a roundtable
discussion with theme park leaders about safety protocols and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Aug. 26.

JOE BURBANK/ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS

BY GRAY ROHRER
ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS

TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Ron DeSantis is pushing to reopen Florida to help the state emerge from the coronavirus shutdown, but the government he oversees remains largely closed.

There hasn’t been an in-person Cabinet meeting since February. The Capitol remains shut down to the public. State workers are still operating under social distancing restrictions and mask-wearing guidelines.

But the governor has insisted on opening schools for in-person learning, allowed visitors for nursing homes, encouraged theme parks to expand attendance caps, invited more tourists to the state and is looking at reducing restrictions on bars and restaurants.

Working from home

DeSantis has said allowing visitors in nursing homes that haven’t had a positive test in two weeks was done out of compassion for elderly residents who’ve been unable to see relatives since March. But the key factor in the rest of the decisions was restarting the economy.

“The state’s economic engine needs to start running again,” DeSantis spokesman Fred Piccolo wrote in an email. “While the symbolism of the Capitol opening will be welcome, the fact is, essential work is getting done with essential personnel. In the meantime, we are starting our economic engines.”

Many state workers continue to work from home or must wear face masks or distance themselves from colleagues when in the office. Those who are working, though, are often in workplaces that could expose them to the virus at places like hospitals and schools.

“The majority of our state employees who can do so are working from home,” said Vicki Hall, president of the Florida chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. “However, our essential workers … continue to put themselves at risk daily while performing their duties to care for residents.”

Reopening risks

Hall also expressed concern over the reopening of schools, which DeSantis has demanded as an option for in-person learning for parents who choose to send their children. DeSantis is worried about kids slipping behind by relying solely on virtual school and of the lack of socialization and other services provided by schools, such as free lunches for low-income students.

But Hall is worried that school workers — teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria employees and other staffers — will be at risk as classes reopen.

“As expected, we are seeing a number of schools with positive cases,” Hall said. “We feel that the safety of children, staff, and faculty should be a top priority for our state leadership but as we are witnessing, this, unfortunately, has not been the case.”

No face mask

In recent weeks DeSantis has been signaling an intent to remove more and more coronavirus restrictions. He announced the resumption of visitation at nursing homes on Sept. 1 and appeared with theme park executives in Orlando encouraging them to increase their occupancy levels.

And although wearing a mask and practicing social distancing remain key parts of his health department’s message to the public, DeSantis hasn’t been wearing a face mask in public appearances and was skeptical of social distancing practices.

“How long is that natural for people to do?” DeSantis said on Sept. 3 at an event in a bar in St. Petersburg.

Sans mask, he met with bar owners who have been shut down since July when cases of COVID-19 surged, with daily positivity rates above 15% and caseloads of more than 10,000 per day, DeSantis shuttered them. Now, with caseloads and positivity rates decreasing — down to 2,909 daily average and a positivity rate of about 5% — he said he’s trying to “get to yes” and find a way to reopen the bars safely.

Sept. 22 meeting

On Sept. 4, he allowed Palm Beach County to enter Phase 2 of the reopening process, allowing for 50% occupancy at restaurants and retail and gyms to reopen as well.

But the discrepancy between scaling back restrictions on private businesses while leaving them in place for the government has rankled his critics.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who has consistently bashed DeSantis’ response to the pandemic, has pressed him to hold more Cabinet meetings, which are usually held once a month. But since the crisis hit in mid-March there’s been only one Cabinet meeting and it was conducted via conference call.

DeSantis’ office said the reason for canceling the meetings was public safety. Piccolo said the current plan is for the next scheduled meeting, set for Sept. 22, to be conducted in person.

“After nearly four months of cancellations, I’m glad the governor has finally made time for a Cabinet meeting to discuss important state business,” Fried said in a statement sent from her office on Sept. 4.

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