As COVID-19 task force completes its work, Gov. DeSantis says no to reopening movies, sports venues

Gov. Ron DeSantis and doctors at the Cleveland Clinic Florida maintained social distancing during a news conference regarding COVID-19 in Weston on April 25, 2020. Screenshot

As a task force worked over the weekend to give Gov. Ron DeSantis recommendations for opening businesses again, a leading doctor warned Saturday that the process might prove hit-and-miss and that people should continue maintaining social distancing precautions.

Meanwhile, the governor put distance between himself and guidelines from the Trump administration that would allow gathering places including movie theaters, restaurants, and sporting venues to reopen as long as customers maintain six feet of social distancing.

“We’re not doing in-person sports yet no matter what. It’s not going to happen,” DeSantis said during a news conference.

DeSantis has deemed professional wresting an essential business and allowed a match to be conducted in Florida without an in-person audience, and hopes to see professional golf and NASCAR events under similar circumstances, so people will have something to watch on TV.

But he stressed the difference between large gatherings indoors and those held outdoors.

“I’m not there yet on the movie theaters. I think it’s an enclosed environment. You’re much better off being outdoors than in an enclosed environment. That’s just a reality,” he said.

Phase One of Trump’s planned return to normal amounts to “very, very small step forward. The prudent way to do it is to be very methodical about this. Very data-driven. I’m not in a rush to do anything. I’d rather do it right,” DeSantis said.

“We’re in uncharted waters here. Nobody knows, really, what specifically what has been effective or not. Nobody knows what is going to be effective or not going forward. We think we may know certain things, but you’ve got to be willing to constantly reevaluate everything.”

Dr. Wael Barsoum, president and CEO of the Cleveland Clinic Florida, stressed a similar point during the news conference at the clinic’s campus in Weston.

“One thing that I do think is important for people to recognize is that it’s never happened in any of our lifetimes that we have reversed a viral quarantine. So what we’re going to be seeing here over the next several weeks and months will be educational for each of us every single day,” Barsoum said.

As businesses reopen, “we may have to step back from some of those decisions as a society,” he cautioned.

The latest figures posted on the Florida Department of Health’s COVID-19 surveillance dashboard as of early Saturday afternoon reflected 30,839 cases in the state and 10,055 deaths. That included 306 new positive cases and nine deaths since the last report Friday evening.

The governor has been criticized for refusing to quickly enact the more stringent precautions imposed in other states but has argued that he tailored his response to conditions in Florida.

DeSantis argues that his move toward reopening businesses is justified by the slower-than-projected caseload in Florida. The 37,000 or so tests results for COVID-19 received during the past two days returned approximately 2,000 positive results, or in the neighborhood of 6-7 percent, he said Saturday.

“If that rate is declining, then you’re doing a good job,” DeSantis said.

The governor took a swipe at news reports about the scale of the pandemic and his response.

“There were papers in Florida a month ago saying that by this week Florida would have 465,000 people hospitalized for COVID-19. The fact of the matter is, this week the number of people who have been in the hospital has hovered around 2,100 people — not 465,000,” he said.

“We have more space in available beds today, more ICU beds available today, than before the pandemic began,” he said. That’s around 70,000 beds, the governor continued, adding that the earlier projections would have left hundreds of thousands of people dead for want of hospital space.

The almost exclusively male and Republican task force has been weighing how to begin to undo the stay-home executive order that DeSantis issued on April 1 and that is scheduled to expire on Thursday. The governor’s office has opened a website where regular Floridians can weigh in.

One thing the task force is looking at is allowing resumption of elective medical procedures, which DeSantis had ordered delayed. On Saturday, he argued that his ban was justified with the information available at the time but that the lack of an overwhelming demand for COVID-19 beds means “I think we do need to move in that direction.”

Barsoum counseled caution.

“You have to recognize where you sit in terms of your own personal risk. I have my own parents who are 75 and 84 years old, and I’ve told them that regardless of what happens in the coming weeks I expect that they will still remain in quarantine. And when they’re outside, they will always have a mask on and wear gloves,” he said.

And the need to wear masks and refrain from social mingling will remain. “Recognize that that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something,” he said.

“Probably most important, is that if you have any symptoms at all — a cough, GI problems, a sore throat, a fever — it is your social responsibility to your fellow human beings to stay home and to get tested. Even if you have the opportunity to go back to work, if you are sick you need to say something about that. It is just too much of a risk to allow our fellow humans to get sick because someone doesn’t want to say something about it.”

Michael Moline
Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.