NOT ANOTHER SHUTDOWN

Despite surging COVID-19 cases statewide, the governor says Florida needs to stay the course on reopening its economy and activities.

Free COVID-19 testing continued at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando on June 16. With a significant increase in positive cases in recent days, the testing site is in high demand with long wait times. Posted signage announced a three hour wait at the site.
JOE BURBANK/ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS

BY CHRISTINE SEXTON
NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

TALLAHASSEE – Saying society needs to “function,” Gov. Ron DeSantis vowed Tuesday to keep Florida open despite a recent surge in the number of people infected with COVID-19.

“We are not shutting down. We are going to go forward,” DeSantis said during a news conference. “We are going to continue to protect the most vulnerable. We are going to urge and continue to advise our elderly population to maintain social distancing and avoid crowds.”

DeSantis held the news conference amid increasing questions about the surge in cases and just hours after state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried accused him of acting “recklessly.”

Target testing cited

Between June 4 and June 11, for example, Florida reported 8,886 new COVID-19 cases.

(As of Wednesday afternoon, there were 82,719 cases and an increase of 2,610 from
Tuesday. The death count was 3,018 residents.)

DeSantis attributed the increases to state efforts to target testing in high-risk areas such as nursing homes and prisons. Also, he pointed to several cluster areas in the state that he said skewed the percentage of positive cases upward.

The governor said 90 workers at an Alachua County watermelon farm tested positive for the virus after a migrant worker from Miami arrived at the site. Health officials tested 100 workers at the farm and 90 came up positive.

“That’s a 90 percent positivity. And part of  the reason is when you have workers like that, they are living in really close confines, sometimes multi-generational,” DeSantis said.

No masks requirement

The governor cited several other examples, but he said the state needs to stay the course on reopening its economy and activities.

“You have to have society function, you have to be able to have a cohesive society,” he said. “To suppress a lot of working-age people at this point, I don’t think would be highly effective.”

DeSantis also said he would not require people to wear masks to control community spread of the virus.

“We’re not going to be doing that. I think it would be applied unevenly, and I just don’t think it would end up working,” the governor said of any requirement to mandate the use of masks.

Pushing back

But Fried earlier bashed DeSantis after the state recorded nearly 2,800 new cases Tuesday and the overall number of cases topped 80,000.

“Today’s record-high new cases makes it clear: Governor DeSantis has lost control of Florida’s COVID-19 response,” Fried said in a statement. “His policies are simply not working, and he’s recklessly reopening Florida despite the data screaming for caution.”

Fried, who has repeatedly clashed with DeSantis in recent months, asked local government officials to encourage residents to stay home and to don masks and adhere to social distancing recommendations when they go out in public.

“If the governor is unwilling to make the right decisions, then they must be made in our cities, our states and our homes,” Fried said in the statement.

Surge cause disputed

After the news conference, Fried’s office also disputed that the agriculture industry is a primary driver of the surge in cases.

“Commissioner Fried has been in close, regular communication with Florida’s leading agricultural associations throughout COVID-19,” Franco Ripple, a Fried spokesman said in a prepared statement.

“There is evidence of community spread of COVID-19 in areas where farms are located, but the vast majority of farmworkers left agricultural communities several weeks ago, as harvests have ended. …

“Many areas where cases are spiking are in non-agricultural counties, such as Broward, Duval and Hillsborough, which have seen their highest positive case days in over a month. The Florida Department of Health has not communicated to our department any specific concerns about agriculture and COVID-19. “

Reopening phases

After the pandemic hit the state in March, DeSantis issued an executive order that generally directed residents to stay at home throughout most of April.

President Donald Trump on April 16 issued “Opening Up America Again” guidelines, a three-phase approach to bringing the economy back online after many businesses were shut down or dramatically scaled back to prevent the spread of the disease.

Borrowing from the recommendations, DeSantis authorized the first phase of a reopening plan in early May. That included approving hospitals and ambulatory surgical centers to reopen for surgeries and other medical procedures  and authorizing the reopening of other businesses. DeSantis followed with a second phase of the reopening plan June 5.

In the second phase, restaurants, movie theaters, concert houses, auditoriums, playhouses, bowling alleys and arcades are authorized to operate at 50 percent capacity, with social distancing standards in place.

‘Alarming patterns’

DeSantis also gave the green light to tattoo, body piercing, acupuncture, tanning and massage establishments to reopen at 50 percent capacity.

Since DeSantis authorized the second phase, the state has seen large increases in reported cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

Fried said the governor’s refusal to acknowledge what she called “alarming patterns” is “not only arrogant but will cost lives, public health and our economy.”

Surgeon general’s advice

In a statewide phone call with hospital industry officials Tuesday, Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees followed DeSantis’ lead and attributed an increased percentage in positive test results to “going into areas where we anticipate that there may be more individuals with COVID-19.”

But Rikvees briefly acknowledged that “there is increased spread of COVID in some areas.” Additionally, he acknowledged an increase in the numbers of people who go to emergency rooms suffering from COVID-like or flu-like illnesses. “In some areas we are seeing an increase in that,” he said.

Rivkees also said mitigation continues to be the best way to slow down the spread of COVID-19 and that hand washing, maintaining at least six feet between people and wearing face masks are basic mitigation efforts that will help slow the spread of the disease.

“Face masks, evidence continues to show, play a major role in decreasing transmission,” Rivkees said.

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