DeSantis invokes broad emergency powers against coronavirus; military field hospitals one possibility

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an emergency declaration Monday allowing state and local agencies to waive laws, ordinances, and regulations if necessary to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

It also authorizes the Florida National Guard to establish field hospitals if patients overrun existing medical facilities.

The order creates a “unified command structure” against the virus and will allow out-of-state medical personnel to work in Florida and speed acquisition of masks and other medical equipment.

DeSantis emphasized the need to balance public health against people’s jobs in a state so reliant on tourism, including the cruise industry and professional and industry conferences.

“If you do things that really aren’t going to be effective at stopping the virus from spreading, but then will have a negative impact on the economy — those are people’s lives you’re talking about,” he said.

“This is going to be a team effort. It’s going to be a bottom-up effort. We’re going to be working with local communities. We’re certainly not going to be dictating the decisions that they make.”

DeSantis announced the order during a news conference that capped a day in which the state House chamber was ordered emptied because a number of members might have been exposed to the virus during a conservative conference outside Washington, D.C., and the state Department of Health issued — but shortly after rescinded — a statement suggesting every passenger arriving on international flights self-isolate for 14 days.

The initial release was a mistake, the governor said, suggesting the blame lies with a rapidly developing situation as infections spread.

“That guidance can change as the facts on the ground change and as different things develop,” he said. “The main thing is that we really want to get the message out about the folks, as they get older and develop serious underlying conditions or have those, those are the people that really need to be protected.”

The governor and agency chiefs attending the news conference didn’t go into details about how the field hospitals would work.

The Agency for Health Care Administration, meanwhile, is enforcing stringent testing of visitors at hospitals and nursing homes. As for capacity during an epidemic, DeSantis said the state is considering adopting the Chinese practice of steering coronavirus patients to a single hospital within an area — although he conceded the logistics would be daunting.

The state has been conducting coronavirus testing at state facilities in Jacksonville, Miami, and Tampa, but now has made arrangements with two private laboratory companies, LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics, DeSantis said, under referrals from doctors.

He’s also looking into whether Florida universities might design and implement coronavirus testing programs with approval from the federal government. Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has approved testing kits that could allow expansion of the testing network.

And the governor said he’s asked Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees to review epidemiological data from hospitals for evidence of spikes in cases of flu or flu-like conditions in hopes of gleaning information about coronavirus cases in younger people who tend to experience milder symptoms and might not realize they’re infected with the coronavirus. That could include testing children visiting pediatricians.

“I think it potentially could help — particularly for the class of people who are not going to develop really significant symptoms, but nevertheless potentially could be contagious.”

COVID-19, the sometimes-fatal respiratory disease linked to coronavirus, tends to strike hardest in older people or those with serious underlying medical conditions.

DeSantis has asked the Legislature for $25 million to contain coronavirus and House and Senate leaders have indicated he’ll get it — although Senate President Bill Galvano has indicated that might require trimming spending on DeSantis priorities including increased teacher pay.

DeSantis didn’t think that would be necessary. The coronavirus money he seeks “is not a huge part of a $91 billion budget,” he said, and Florida expects around $27 million from the federal government. “We can absolutely walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Officials did not disclose how many testing kits the state has received from the CDC.

DeSantis appealed to employers to cooperate if workers fall ill and need to stay home to comply with public health protocols that call for self-isolation. Darden Restaurants, which owns chains inkling Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse, has agreed to supply paid sick leave.

“I think you’re going to see more and more businesses respond,” the governor said. “We have some limited ability to help folks who are self-isolating when they have loss of income, but I think it’s going to require the private sector to be involved in addition to state and federal government.”

The state has focused on containment of patients who acquired the virus overseas but is planning for community spread — that is, infections among people with no overseas exposure, Rivkees said.

Regarding Florida’s public schools, Education Secretary Richard Corocoran said the focus is on containment — persuading sick students and teachers to stay home — but that the state’s virtual school system, which uses online instruction, is gearing up to accommodate as many as 400,000 students; 40,000 participate now. That will entail adding 15 new servers and capacity to train an additional 10,000 teachers to use the system.