As Florida braced Tuesday for beginning its third month of an economic reopening, another 6,093 new coronavirus cases were added to a toll that has spiked sharply over the past week.
The climbing case load has many questioning not only the response of Gov. Ron DeSantis and state health officials to the virus, but also just how long reopening can endure in its current form.
“We’re telling our members mandate masks, do everything above and beyond just so we’re not next” for shutdown, said Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. “I’ve told them, ‘We’re next, if you’re not careful.’”
Tuesday’s new cases brought Florida to 152,434 cumulative people identified with infections, while another 58 deaths left the state with 3,505 fatalities from COVID-19.
Health officials reported that 14,580 people have been hospitalized, a 43% increase since June 1, records show, amounting to an average of an additional 145 people a day entering Florida hospitals over the month because of the illness.
While testing has stepped up dramatically, the state’s rate of positive cases has also soared — averaging 14.35% over the past week — three times what it was a month ago. Epidemiologists say the rate is a clear sign that the virus has spread widely.
Florida is among more than 30 states where coronavirus cases are on a significant rise, prompting DeSantis and governors in California, Washington, Texas and Arizona to walk back at least some of their reopenings.
DeSantis last Friday shut down bars — limiting them to take-out service — exactly three weeks after he’d allowed them to reopen, shortly after restaurants were allowed to serve at 50% capacity.
The state reported almost 10,000 new cases of coronavirus that day — a record that followed a number of recent record-setting days.
Still, Florida’s governor said Tuesday at an appearance in Juno Beach that he had no plans to retreat further.
“If we protect the vulnerable, then we’re going to be able to get through this patch adequately,” DeSantis said, adding that the median age of those testing positive for the virus in recent weeks is in the 30s.
More than 80% of Florida deaths from the virus are among people age 65 and older. Still, DeSantis said younger people who think they may have the virus, and who may show few or no symptoms of being sick, need to avoid interacting with older relatives and associates.
Dover, though, said that restaurants and other businesses now face hurdles as they struggle with employees who test positive. Along with losing a worker and maybe several coworkers to two weeks of isolation, the business is thoroughly cleaning, sometimes forcing closure for a couple of days.
When DeSantis closed bars, she said that some restaurants and hotels also shuttered theirs to avoid being seen as sanctioning bad behavior.
“It requires a lot more management to hover over and make sure you’re getting social distancing,” Dover said. “But it’s something we’re doing, and have got to do.”
Although the Republican governor, an ally of President Donald Trump, has refused to require masks statewide, more than 70 Florida governments have enacted their own standards, with the city of Sarasota and Seminole County among the latest to demand masks when at an indoor business or outside where social distancing is impossible.
Jacksonville, which earlier this month was selected to host part of next month’s Republican National Convention, largely because the already chosen site, Charlotte, N.C., insisted on a scaled down gathering not to Trump’s liking, reversed policy and ordered masks Monday for indoor public gatherings.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry is a former Florida Republican Party chairman. And in announcing the requirement, the city left open the possibility the standard could be lifted by the Aug. 24 convention start.
DeSantis said Monday that he “worked very closely” with Jacksonville and has “left it to the locals to make decisions about whether they want to use coercive measures or impose any type of criminal penalties. We’re not going to do that statewide.”