FL Dems in Congress: Gov. DeSantis halted COVID-19 briefings

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, flanked by aides, discussed the state's efforts to contain the new coronavirus during a news conference in the state Capitol on March 11, 2020. Credit: Michael Moline

WASHINGTON — Florida Democrats are accusing Gov. Ron DeSantis of stonewalling members of Congress during the COVID-19 pandemic as they’re pressing the governor to take more drastic steps to curb the spread of the virus. 

State officials held briefings for the Florida congressional delegation at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Broward County Democrat, told reporters over a video teleconference on Tuesday. But those ceased more than two weeks ago, she said. 

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, via YouTube

“We are not getting statewide briefings from the state anymore,” she said, and DeSantis “has not once come on and taken and engaged in discussion with the congressional delegation.” 

Florida Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz “has been quite accessible,”  Wasserman Schultz added, “but that’s different than the governor making available critical agency heads to the congressional delegation so we can ask questions.” 

Rep. Ted Deutch, another South Florida Democrat, also assailed DeSantis’ communication with members of Congress. 

Deutch issued a plea to the governor “to hold regular calls with members of Congress and state elected officials, so that we can be sure we all have the same information, we’re all working to the same end.” 

DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about congressional briefings. 

‘I have nightmares’ 

Wasserman Schultz and Deutch were joined on Tuesday by Democratic Reps. Lois Frankel, Donna Shalala, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Darren Soto. All of them blasted DeSantis for issuing a “safer at home” order this week that applies only to residents of four South Florida counties that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. 

Donna Shalala (Wikipedia)

“Governor, we need you to follow the science,” said Shalala, who was Secretary of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration. She called it “reckless and irresponsible” to fail to issue a statewide stay-at-home order. 

“There will be thousands of lives that are unnecessarily lost if you do not issue this order,” she said. “You must protect the people outside of our region. Here are people, representatives from South Florida, pleading with you to protect people outside of South Florida by issuing a statewide order.” 

Wasserman Schultz said if there’s a massive uptick in cases in Florida, “there will be a clear path of responsibility for that tragedy, and it will be right to the governor’s mansion.” 

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Florida Department of Health reported 6,338 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases in the state, up from 5,704 Monday evening. Death cases rose to 77, up from 71 Monday evening. The six deaths were from Broward, Dade, Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Polk counties.

DeSantis has argued that local officials should be allowed to respond to local conditions. A lawsuit filed in Leon County Circuit Court seeks to compel the governor to issue a statewide order.

“Hoping to dull the impacts on the economy in the short term by delaying a shelter-in-place order will only exacerbate those impacts in the medium and long term,” said Mucarsel-Powell of Miami. “We need to take these difficult steps now to save the lives of Floridians and to also save our economy in the future. We cannot wait.” 

Central Florida Democratic Rep. Darren Soto urged DeSantis to “recognize that every county is at risk.” While urban areas of the state might be more vulnerable, he said, they also have more health care resources than rural areas. 

“I have nightmares worrying about places from South Florida where we have seniors to rural areas like The Villages where we already have community spread, to rural areas in my district,” Soto said. 

U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat representing parts of South Florida. Photo, Wikipedia

Deutch urged DeSantis to further defend his decision not to issue a statewide stay-at-home order. 

“If the governor and the surgeon general and others in Tallahassee want to explain why they think that’s not the right approach, then let’s have that conversation,” Deutch said. “But let’s get together to fight together on behalf of all Floridians.”