Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday he has no intention of reclosing Florida's economy as the state's daily reported coronavirus cases rose sharply to a record level, saying many of the newly detected are young and healthy and unlikely to suffer serious illness or death.
DeSantis said much of the two-week spike in confirmed infections that pushed the daily total past 2,700 Tuesday can be traced to hot spots such as farm labor camps or particular businesses where a few positive cases leads to widespread testing that uncovers high percentages of asymptomatic or barely symptomatic cases.
Given those circumstances, DeSantis said it makes no sense to again severely restrict the state’s economy as it was from late March into May.
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“We are not shutting down, we are going to go forward and we are going to continue to protect the most vulnerable,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Tallahassee.
But Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat elected statewide, blasted DeSantis, saying in a statement he “has lost control of Florida’s COVID-19 response.”
“His policies are simply not working, and he’s recklessly reopening Florida despite the data screaming for caution,” she said. “Refusing to acknowledge the alarming patterns in cases, hospitalizations, and positivity is not only arrogant, but will cost lives."
DeSantis' appearance came hours after the state Department of Health reported 2,783 new confirmed cases, pushing the total since March 1 to 80,109. The figure broke the one-day record of 2,581 just set on Friday. Both days are well above the previous high of 1,601 set in mid-May. The state now has reported 2,993 deaths, a one-day jump of 55. The daily average for the past week has been about 35, down from 60 in early May — a fact DeSantis pointed to as proof that the newly infected are less likely to be elderly or sick.
He also said the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units has been halved along with the number requiring ventilators.
After a period of decline, the state’s confirmed cases again began rising June 3, with more than 1,000 cases reported on 13 of the last 14 days. The number of tests given daily has been in the 27,000 range. On average this past week, more than 1,700 new cases have been reported daily.
DeSantis said the raw numbers belie facts that he says exaggerate the severity, such as hot spots that haven't spread into the general community. For example, he pointed to a watermelon farm near Gainesville where 90 of the 100 workers tested positive but only one showed symptoms and a central Florida factory where 77 of 211 workers tested positive but few had symptoms.
The outbreak has even spread to the team that operates the nation’s hurricane hunter planes, with five employees at the Lakeland base testing positive, forcing others into quarantine, officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said. Spokesman Jonathan Shannon said the three planes are still flying with minimum crews. There are no tropical storms in the Atlantic or Caribbean and none are likely in the next several days.
Still the percentage of positive tests now exceeds 6%, more than double the rate of 2.3% in late May. The daily rate of hospital admissions is also trending up, with 145 per day statewide over the past week compared to 113 per day the previous week. That remains down from the nearly 200 average admissions per day recorded in early and mid-May.
In Jacksonville, where President Donald Trump will make his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination in August, the daily number of positive cases has increased 65% this last week, jumping from 23 new cases on average per day to 38. Trump's speech was moved from North Carolina, whose governor wouldn't promise a full-blown convention free of social distancing measures.
DeSantis has been more accommodating, but has said restrictions could be placed on Trump's speech if warranted.
Meanwhile, in hard-hit South Florida, the state's most densely populated region, cases are also trending up after flattening last month, said Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, chair of Florida International University's department of epidemiology. Her team's research has focused on heavily populated Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties along with the Florida Keys.
She said everyone should still wear masks in crowded spaces and practice social distancing. If not, she said, “policymakers will have to make those really hard decisions of restricting movement again and potentially a lockdown again. Nobody wants to go there.”
On the state's Gulf coast, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said DeSantis should mandate masks and if his city's numbers keep rising, he might reclose bars to help control the spread.
“My level of concern is significantly elevated,” he said.