The “Full Phase 1” reopening is an experiment with life-and-death consequences.
MIAMI — Over the past week, Florida reported nearly 5,460 new coronavirus cases — and 262 deaths.
On Monday, the state threw open its doors to residents and tourists itching to get back to a semblance of normal.
The urban centers of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, which have remained largely closed, joined the rest of the state in slowly reopening businesses as Florida became one of the largest states in the nation to test how to reopen commerce amid a pandemic.
Gyms can open back up and restaurants can double capacity, to 50 percent, across nearly all of Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis is pushing theme parks — a lifeblood of the state — to open, and professional sports leagues to set up shop.
The “Full Phase 1” reopening is an experiment with life-and-death consequences for people, the health of the Florida economy and, potentially, President Donald Trump’s chances of winning the nation’s biggest swing state and therefore his reelection.
At the intersection of these crosscurrents stands DeSantis, a Republican and top Trump ally who has been in the national spotlight for months. His coronavirus response, which he described as “measured”, didn’t come fast enough for critics.
But predictions of mass deaths and hospitalizations never materialized and DeSantis is now on a victory tour, of sorts, even as he faces significant hurdles in the face of Florida’s tattered economy and an unemployment system that could be denying benefits to thousands of workers. Democrats want him and the GOP-led Legislature to reconvene to fix the problems, saying that if the state needs to get back to work, then so do lawmakers.
DeSantis, who has refused the call for a special session and instead blamed individuals for being unable to properly apply for unemployment benefits, continues to single out New York — the epicenter of nation’s coronavirus epidemic — for so many of Florida’s problems, including some of the negative media coverage he received.
“Where did New Yorkers leave [to] when the epidemic hit? The number one state that they fled to: right here in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said Monday at an Orlando press conference, highlighting a New York Times article about the city’s coronavirus evacuation.
“I quarantine them in March, and everyone in New York media was blowing a gasket, ‘How could you do this?’ That was the right decision,” DeSantis said New Yorkers who traveled to Florida. “South Florida got inundated. Had we not done the quarantine, you would have way more cases, hospitalizations, the whole nine yards.”
The number of total daily new cases and hospitalizations in Florida peaked in April. Deaths peaked in early May, according to state data. The number of new cases has since plateaued as testing has ramped up.
DeSantis’s administration has also been rocked by unfavorable media coverage for sloppy record keeping and, on Friday, concerns about government censorship after the coordinator for Florida’s widely praised Covid-19 online dashboard said she was inexplicably removed from her post.
DeSantis isn’t pretending that the crisis is over, and his administration says it’s monitoring data closely so the state can close again if there’s a problem — a risky proposition in the eyes of some public health advocates and critics who fear a second wave of infection.
Under the Full Phase 1 reopening, nonessential businesses can resume operations with proper social distancing requirements, cleanliness rules and limited capacity, with hair salons and gyms getting the most attention. Restaurants, currently limited to 25 percent capacity statewide, can now double the number of dine-in customers. And theme parks —such as Disney and Universal Studios in the Orlando area — can now start submitting plans to begin accepting visitors.
The exception: South Florida, particularly the major urban counties of Broward and Miami-Dade, which have seen the most cases in the state and where beaches remain closed, along with gyms.
In the city synonymous with South Florida, Miami Beach, city officials are going even slower. Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said he was the first in the state to start closing beaches, on March 16; impose a shelter-in-place order, on March 23; and require the use of masks publicly, on April 3.
Part of what drove the city to shut down were the images of carefree spring breakers ignoring social distancing rules, culminating with an infamous interview with a drunken young man boasting that “if I get corona, I get corona. I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.” He later apologized.
“It would be absolutely foolish for anybody to say everything is OK. It’s not,” said Gelber, who worries that the state and Miami-Dade County are opening too quickly. Gelber, a Democrat, said Miami Beach is waiting until Wednesday to open nonessential businesses, such as retail shops, and that restaurants will be able to open up at 50 percent capacity next week.
Along with Miami Beach, the three other large cities of the county — Miami, Hialeah and Miami Gardens — are going slower than the county, which is opening slower than the state. Fort Lauderdale’s famed beach, synonymous with spring break since the 1960s movie “Where the Boys Are,” also remains closed for now.
“We all want to wait and see,” Gelber said.
Gelber also has doubts about whether Miami-Dade’s overall case loads are declining. There was a recent spike in total cases reported, which officials said was due to a backlog from a private lab, but Gelber said it’s evidence that the data isn’t clean. Also, hospitalization rates don’t look as if they’ve significantly fallen because there’s been a recent uptick in nursing home and assisted living facility patients admitted to hospitals.
Miami-Dade’s mayor, Carlos Gimenez, said the caseloads overall “have been plateauing” and said assisted living facility and nursing home admittances to hospitals aren’t representative of the overall general population of the 2.8 million-person county. He said residents have been largely obeying social distancing requirements and keeping infection rates to a minimum, even though people have gone to grocery stores and have been working in construction — indicating that people can move through society without an epidemic worsening.
“We have over 3,000 critical beds vacant. We have 900 ventilators available and only 60 people are on ventilators in the whole county,” Gimenez, a Republican, said. “We’re looking at a flattening of the curve. We don’t see this surge coming. They thought it would be thousands of people coming to the hospital and it never materialized. … We have to learn how to live with this.”
The governor has been more strident in criticizing the predictions, specifically a model that predicted as many as 464,000 would be hospitalized by late April.
“On April 24, we didn’t have 464,000 hospitalized. We had 2,000 statewide hospitalized. And most of the hospitals in the state had a 50 percent capacity. So the curve was flattened,” DeSantis said Friday. “The American people didn’t sign up to be on a perpetual shelter-in-place. We need to be able to get society functioning again.”
According to new research from Florida Atlantic University economics professor William Luther, DeSantis can only take so much credit for Florida’s relatively good condition. Using Google Mobility, Luther found that local governments, business owners and citizens began social distancing before the DeSantis issued orders March and April. Roughly three-quarters of the change in residential, retail, recreation, workplace and public transportation activity preceded orders by states to shelter in place.
Florida’s lack of public transportation and its low-rise sprawl could also have played a role in reducing transmission rates when compared to densely packed New York City, which has kept the subway open during the pandemic.
Florida has been a relative bright spot for Trump, who needs the state to win reelection and who’s reeling from his administration’s much-maligned response to the coronavirus. Republicans are quick to note that Florida has had fewer than 47,000 coronavirus cases and about 2,000 deaths, far less than similarly-sized and Democratically run New York, where 35,0000 have been infected and more than 22,600 have died.
Though Florida is the third most populous state, it ranks 10th in number of total Covid-19 deaths.
Last month, Trump showcased DeSantis in the White House to boast about the help he’s given to the state, highlighting its heightened number of testing sites, some of which have gone unused at times.
“It’s true in other places. It’s definitely true with Ron,” Trump said. “It seems to be true where the governors have done the proper job using us and utilizing the services that we provide. But it is also true in certain other locations.”
But in underserved communities, there’s still a need, said Florida state Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat from Broward County, where he said there’s not enough testing in “black communities,” like his own.
“It will be malpractice on our part to continue opening without more testing. We’re moving there but we’re not there yet,” Jones said.
Jones said his district shows the complexity of the coronavirus conundrum. Many “are hurting” financially and want to get back to work but, with the coronavirus disproportionately sickening African Americans, they fear that opening back up and going back to their jobs could prove deadly, he said.
“The people in my district are hurting because they’re not working. And I think the Legislature should get to work,” Jones said, adding that the Republican leadership’s refusal to meet in special session “could be due to the presidential election or their own campaigns. But I don’t want to put that on them. But the fact is, we’re not doing anything. And that’s a problem.”
There’s also pressure to open up across the state.
On the Southwest coast, in Naples, the city voted to reopen its beaches last week after re-closing them after a brief opening period because the crowds were too large. The beaches are open only in the early morning and after 5 p.m. But some locals think the restrictions are too tight. Locals in Singer Island, in Southeast Florida, have similarly started to protest beach closures.
In Florida’s Panhandle, Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith was warning visitors against parking illegally as beaches were open for the first weekend of the year and residents said there was an enormous influx of visitors.
“It is going to be a very expensive day for the people who illegally park here,” Smith told WCTV in Tallahassee.
DeSantis focused Monday instead on what the state can do and what it wants to do, including luring sports venues to Florida — albeit to empty stadiums. He made it clear that he wants the state to lead the way in helping the nation recover.
“We believe getting sports back online is important for kind of the nation’s mojo,” DeSantis said. “We want to make sure we are doing our part here in Florida to do it.”