With Florida COVID-19 infections exceeding 25,000 as of Saturday morning, state officials face a complex task in a diverse state: getting residents back to work and school and out of their homes even as infections continue to rise, particularly in southeast Florida.
The effort, described as the “next phase” of the coronavirus pandemic, is already rankling all sides of the debate.
Residents in other states have begun protesting stay-at-home orders and other measures that have tested Americans during the coronavirus crisis, according to news accounts.
But many citizens and public health experts fear that lifting at-home orders and opening businesses, schools, parks and beaches will lead to more infections and deaths.
On Friday, Duval County, home of Jacksonville on Florida’s northeast coast, opened all beaches and parks, with the understanding that people would follow social distancing guidelines and visit during certain times.
“This can be the beginning of the pathway back to normal life,” Mayor Lenny Curry said in a statement on the City of Jacksonville’s website.
St. Johns County beaches on the northeast coast also have opened starting this weekend for specific times, for walking, running and other activities, according to the county government’s website.
Meanwhile, the Florida Democratic Party has scheduled a news conference Monday, urging President Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, “to take the necessary steps to manage the coronavirus pandemic before reopening the economy, including instituting a national mass testing system.”
As for the next-phase effort, DeSantis has already suggested that Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach may be handled differently compared to counties with far fewer infections.
The three large counties on the Atlantic side of the peninsula have been at the epicenter of the pandemic in Florida, with 14,924 infections combined as of Saturday morning. That marked about 60 percent, or 25,269 cases, of all infections in the state.
“We do need to get to a next phase — maybe southeast Florida looks a little different than the rest of the state, and I think that would make sense,” DeSantis said Friday at a news conference in Fort Lauderdale.
Referring to earlier days of the infections — two coronavirus cases were announced March 1 — the governor talked about how the coronavirus wasn’t impacting all 67 Florida counties uniformly, though “it was impacting every part of the state one way or another.”
Clearly, he said Friday, the density of the Southeast area — Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach — and the international travel and connections to New York City made those counties far different than others.
“That was just the reality,” the governor said.
DeSantis said he will be talking to local officials in the three counties with the most infections on how to proceed.
Even now, 17 counties in Florida, many small and rural and in the northern part of the state, have reported 10 infections or fewer, according to data Saturday morning from the Florida Department of Health Department. The Florida Phoenix has been analyzing the various measures in the data related to infections and deaths.
And 30 of the 67 counties had fewer than 50 infections, according to the data.
Only eight counties had 500 or more infections. That included the three big southeast Florida counties, as well as Orange, Hillsborough, Duval, Lee and Pinellas.
The vast majority of counties showed increases in the number of infections over the last week, the data show.
The Saturday morning data also showed 740 deaths. The state reports the data twice a day, in the morning and evening, so the numbers will continue to change.
DeSantis also said Friday that risk of COVID-19 is more minimal when it comes to outside spaces and parks — likely alluding to local government decisions to open beaches and parks.
The governor said people need to get out in the sunshine and get fresh air in a safe and low-risk environment.
DeSantis mentioned that, “I get a kick out of seeing somebody jogging on the beach in California, like all by his lonesome, and you got a fleet of cops out there…. You know, he’s just jogging.”