Gov. Ron DeSantis today announced that Florida was now in Phase 3 reopening of its economy, lifting all restrictions on businesses, including all seating restrictions on restaurants, and forbidding local governments from imposing restrictions absent state approval. The move returns the state to an all-but-normal status that relegates coronavirus concerns and precautions to a deep background, moving business concerns to the forefront.
“We’re not closing anything going forward,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis made his announcement in St. Petersburg at midday, as the Florida Health Department was announcing 120 covid-related deaths confirmed in the previous 24 hours, for a total of just under 14,000, and nearly 3,000 new coronavirus infections, for a total of just under 700,000, third-most in the nation. The governor did not offer new resources to public health agencies.
The state’s positivity rate was at 12 percent in the past two weeks, seven points above what the World Health Organization considers a safe level for safe reopenings. Flagler County has continued to see a local spike for the fourth week in a row, with 200 cases in the last two weeks alone and a positivity rate in the 10 percent range. The local health department just this week reported on a rare “superspreader” event at the Social Club of Palm Coast, where large gatherings and lax enforcement of masks and social distancing led to dozens of new infections at at least two deaths.
Florida’s daily case load has leveled in the 2,500 range in September, well above last spring’s numbers. Nationally, cases had fallen for much of August and the beginning of September, but the numbers have been rising against for the past two weeks. Covid-related deaths exceeded 200,000 this week.
While potentially beneficial to business, the Florida governor’s move still depends on consumer confidence, which remains tepid even as struggles to move from pandemic lows. In Florida, consumer confidence fell again in July and August, a reflection from the steep spike in covid-19 cases the state experienced in June and July, after DeSantis and local governments relaxed restrictions too rapidly in May.
“Most of the pessimism in August stems from Floridians’ views about their current economic conditions, particularly from opinions about their personal financial situation now compared with a year ago. Notably, this component of the index reached its lowest level since February 2014,” said Hector H. Sandoval, director of the Economic Analysis Program at UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research earlier this month. “The decline in consumer sentiment, particularly in Floridians’ views about their personal finances, comes as no surprise. The resulting loss of tourism business from the pandemic has continued to severely impact Florida’s economy. The state’s unemployment rate remained at historically high levels in July; coupled with the expiration of the weekly $600 in enhanced unemployment benefits from the federal government at the end of July, the economic situation deteriorated for those out of work.”
DeSantis today appeared to be aiming for a psychological stimulus, hoping that a broader reopening of restaurants would spur more out-of-home spending.
“We are today moving into what we initially called Phase 3, and what means for the restaurants is that there will not be limitations from the state of Florida, and in fact, we’re also cognisant about the need for business certainty. There have been some local closures, and other types of restrictions, and so the order that I’m signing today will guarantee restaurants to operate, will not allow closure, they can operate at a minimum of 50 percent regardless of local rules, and then if a local restricts between 50 and 100, they’ve got to provide the justification and they’ve got to identify what the costs involved with doing that are.”
DeSantis spoke of the previous attempts to “slow the spread” through restrictions but downplayed those effect’s usefulness, speaking doubtfully of contentions that restrictions should stay in place until a vaccine is found. Conflating unspecified claims attributed to “people” with his desired policy, he then referred dismissively to the contention that “now people are saying, hey, even if there’s a vaccine, it’s still going to take another year before you can operate appropriately.”
That is not what public health experts have been saying.
“If we can get everyone to pull together and realize we all want to open up the economy, we all want to get people back to work, we all want to get a degree of normality, the best way to do that, as I said many times before and I’ll say it again, is to get that level of infection in the community down,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview this week, remarks he echoed in Senate testimony. “The easiest way to get your children back to school when you’re in a red zone is do everything you can to make sure the zone you are in changes from red to green. Then you can get the kids back to school.”
Fauci continued: “Let’s assume that we get a reasonably effective vaccine. Not measles vaccine where you have a 98 percent effective — I think that would be almost too much to ask for — but let’s talk about 75, 80 percent effective vaccine, which would be really good if we did that,” he said. “If we did that and we ultimately got everybody who should be and could be vaccinated, I would think that, together with not necessarily abruptly ending measures like masks and physical distancing, if we could get the majority of the community to adopt those health measures together with a reasonably effective vaccine, then we could get the level of infection down so low in the community that by the third quarter end of 2021 we could start thinking in terms of normal.”
That’s the fuller context of the claim that normalcy may not be as sharply attainable as assumed. It’s not clear if that’s the context DeSantis had in mind today when he spoke of ending restrictions on restaurants: “I don’t think that’s viable, I don’t think that that is acceptable, and so I think that this will be very, very important to the industry.”
What appears clearer is that DeSantis was decoupling for good the connection between science and public health on one hand and the economy on the other, opting exclusively for a focus on business measures. Every business has the right to operate, he said. Local governments “can do reasonable regulations, but you can’t just say no, you can’t say no after six months and just have people twisting in the wind.”
As he has through his tenure through the pandemic, DeSantis spoke without public health, medical or scientific experts weighing in, and at one point showed a board listing “fatality rates” of coronavirus by age to argue that for all but the elderly, the disease’s fatality rate is negligible–a claim at variance with actual numbers that show that 2,500 of Florida’s 14,000 covid-related deaths so far, or 18 percent, were those of people under 65.
The fatality rate by age also neglects to take account of the infection rate, which is both more promiscuous and more universal: based on a consensus of the scientific literature so far, in all age groups but those under 10, infections spread equally. So while a 20-year-old person is very unlikely to die, that 20-year-old will infect a 65-year-old no less effectively than a 65-year-old will infect a person of the same age. Additionally, DeSantis’s figures mentioned neither hospitalization nor post-hospitalization recovery, which can be long and hard, or complications from mere infections.
He touted reopening’s broader numbers: Schools have opened. All the theme parks are open. More people have visited. And what has happened with hospitalizations? Covid-positive hospitalizations are down 76 percent since the July peak,” he said. He did not mention the daily death average: just over 100.
The Florida chapter of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a left-leaning group, issued a news release that said more testing is needed to bring the semblance of normalcy DeSantis craves.
“Some of the top economists across the country have told Gov. DeSantis in no uncertain terms that the economy will not recover until he gets the virus under control,” the group said. “Yet, the governor is preventing potentially life-saving restrictions while Covid-19 cases are still well above the levels that health professionals deem safe for reopening. Prohibiting restrictions, especially in high-risk settings for spreading the virus like indoor dining, will prolong economic damage and risk lives unnecessarily.”