Citing Florida as weathering the coronavirus crisis much better than many other states, especially those hardest hit, Gov. Ron DeSantis today said the state will begin reopening starting on May 4, except for three South Florida counties. But he is taking a much more cautious approach than other states that have reopened, and many existing restrictions will remain in effect.
“Florida will take a step, small, deliberate, methodical,” he said, “towards a more hopeful future. We do have hope. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.” It was one of his most anticipated news conferences of this ongoing emergency, lasting just under an hour.
What Phase 1 means for Florida and the 64 counties affected: Schools will maintain distance learning. Visitors will still be barred from long-term care facilities. Restrictions on groups of 10 or less will remain in place. Recommended use of masks in public places is now a statewide directive.
Elective surgeries may resume in hospitals. Movie theaters, bars and gyms will stay closed. “Prudence dictates that we go a little slow on that,” DeSantis said.
Restaurants may open outdoor seating with six-foot spacing between tables, and no limits on those tables as long as they abide by the distancing. Indoors, they may reopen as well, but must remain at or below 25 percent capacity of the restaurant’s inside floor space. While innumerable retail outlets never closed, many retail businesses that had may reopen, but also at 25 percent indoor capacity. DeSantis was a bit more vague on that count, saying that the order restricting “inessential” businesses remains in place, but with looser allowances. Travelers into the state will continue to be monitored.
But older people or people with underlying conditions will have to still abide by stay-home recommendations as much as possible, because more than 80 percent of those who have died of the coronavirus are in those groups.
DeSantis spoke alone, standing at a podium in the Cabinet starting at 5 this afternoon.
The new phase will exclude the three South Florida counties most severely affected by the virus. He described the approach as “safe, smart, and step by step.” He said an obstacle to overcome is “fear,” the story of fear that has kept people suffering from heart and other ailments, such as strokes, from seeking medical help in a hospital, because they fear catching the virus.
He said the state will be guided by “certain fundamental guiding principles,” chiefly public health and public safety. He said the elderly are at most risk, as are those with significant underlying medical conditions. He is concerned about the economy, and about civil liberties. “People have rights, the government needs to protect health, but we shouldn’t go beyond what’s necessary to protect that,” he said.
But he cautioned that the state will not move to phase 2 without documented certainties that the trends are safe. He insisted that the state had done much better than feared, and at one point explicitly blamed China for the pandemic, in terms more ideological than factual: “This was thrust upon us largely by the malfeasance of the Chinese Communist party,” he said. (The virus emerged in a market Wuhan, China, but there is no evidence that the Chinese government “thrust” the virus on the world.)
He also cautioned against making specious connections between certain activities and an uptick in infections, ridiculing, for example, those who criticized the mayor of Jacksonville for reopening beaches.
“That worst-case scenario thinking, that has not turned out to be true,” he said, showing a graph indicating the proportional number of fatalities and hospitalization rates in Florida much lower than many other states where the virus’ effects were worse. But he cited projections that pre-dated or were almost contemporary with DeSantis’s own shelter-in-place order, which was intended to do exactly what it did: prevent a surge in infections and hospitalizations. “The goal of reducing the curve was to keep infections underneath that hospital capacity,” DeSantis acknowledged. “There was never a time when there were beds that were needed.”
He said “mitigation” worked. “We’ve done much better than everybody said we would do.”
Part of our strategy in phase one is to expand testing beyond what we’ve already done,” DeSantis said, with a number of walk-up testing sites in many counties and new ones being added. “That’s bringing testing to people who may not be seeking testing.” The stepped up testing will be used to locate trends in infections. He described an approach that would make testing much more visible and available than previously. The state has also procured a mobile lab, enabling 3,500 tests a week with results in less than an hour. The tool would be used with health care workers and nursing home sites, helping to detect potential clusters.
For contact tracing, another key component of controlling or suppressing the virus, the governor credited existing ranks of health department workers but said the state “would probably add even more” contact tracers only if needed. “This saved a lot of spread particularly in communities that did not have a lot of widespread transmission.”
The stepped up testing mirrors trends in Flagler, where the immediate goal “is to test at least 2 percent of our population,” Flagler Health Department Chief Bob Snyder said. “So far in Flagler County we have tested 1.15 percent of our residents. The White House’s phased-in plan of reopening the nation includes seeing evidence of a 14-day downward trend in positivity rates among new cases. This has occurred in only two of 67 counties statewide–Orange and Hillsborough counties. In Flagler, we have a ways to go. But we are hopeful due to the testing site closer to home and other test site options like the Health Department, the urgent care centers and the speedway.”
DeSantis pointed to other indicators to justify the state’s move to Phase 1. Admissions for coughs and influenza-like symptoms have dropped, and overall cases have been declining, with daily totals below 1,000 every day except for two exceptions, when the health department was conducting back-logged “data dumps.” He said as Florida keeps testing more, new cases will be found, but the “positivity rate” will be a stronger indication of the disease’s spread: that rate, peaking at 15 percent on certain days and remaining in the low double-digits on most days, has fallen to around 6 and 5 percent. “That’s the trend we like to look at,” he said.
Another criteria indicating a credible return to some normalcy: the availability of hospital beds. “We have more beds available today in the state of Florida than on March 1,” he said, though that’s largely by design: DeSantis’s order ceased elective surgeries and many other hospital functions, while hospitals reduced admissions in preparation for the expected surge.
DeSantis spoke on a day that saw the number of new confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Florida fall to the lowest total since March 24, with just 355 new cases registered today by the Florida Department of Health.
The cumulative total for Flagler County is 133. That total includes all confirmed infections since late March, as well as those who have recovered, though the department does not break down the number of recoveries. Twelve people have been marked as hospitalized in Flagler. But that number is also cumulative, and it includes Flagler residents who are hospitalized elsewhere. Two Flagler residents have died. In the state, 1,218 Floridians have died.
Palm Coast issued its own phased re-opening framework last week. The plan proposed nothing different and certainly nothing more restrictive than the governor’s plan described today, but it nevertheless drew significant opposition. Earlier today at Palm Coast’s town hall on the virus, anchored by Mayor Milissa Holland and with Snyder, City Manager Matt Morton and Fire Chief Jerry Forte on the dais, Holland stressed that the city is continuing to follow the governor’s lead.
“It’s important to note to our residents,” Holland said, “when the governor issued his executive order a few weeks back, that was the moment where the businesses were shut down. The non-essential businesses were told to close by that executive order. So the city of Palm Coast obviously, we must comply to a governor’s executive order, this is not something that we go and contrary to that.”
“We are waiting for the governor’s order to reopen with his recommendations,” Holland continued. (The town hall was held at midday, five hours before the governor spoke.) “We don’t know what types of businesses he’s going to recommend open first. But we have to have benchmarks on these phases. We have to measure these phases because we have to do it safely. That cannot be something that can be compromised in any way, shape or form. We’re dealing with the health and safety of our community and the residents within, and we do have a substantial, high-risk community.” According to the Census Bureau’s latest estimate, 31 percent of Flagler County’s population is 65 years old or older.