Eyes on Gov. DeSantis as FL’s COVID-19 task force prepares its plan to reopen economy

Gov. Ron DeSantis and President Donald Trump at the White House in April 2020, discussing coronavirus and reopening Florida. Credit: Screenshot, ABC 25 WPBF.

With a state task force’s plan for beginning to reopen Florida’s economy due at any time, Gov. Ron DeSantis has been signaling that the process will take time.

The task force — heavily weighted toward Republicans and men — had been due to deliver its report Friday, but sought extra time to confer with medical authorities. DeSantis’s stay-home executive order expires on Thursday.

DeSantis, at the White House Tuesday meeting with President Trump, said during a joint news conference that he would announce his intentions on Wednesday. The governor’s press office had issued no notice of the meeting nor, as of early evening, his daily schedule.

“They submitted a report to me,” DeSantis said of his task force. “I’m going to be reviewing that today. Obviously, we’ve been thinking about what we’re going to need to do. And so we’ll announce it tomorrow about the next steps forward for Florida.”

DeSantis spent the weekend and Monday hosting news conferences at hospitals around the state bragging about the state’s response to coronavirus and signaling his plans.

“As you look about going forward, I think clearly folks should see a light at the end of the tunnel for the state of Florida,” DeSantis said Monday at Tampa General Hospital.

“It’s not going to be something that a switch is going to be flipped. This is going to be slow and steady wins the race. It’s going to be very methodical, very data driven, and there’s going to be probably some people who think it’s too slow,” he said.

He also signaled that he doesn’t plan a free-for-all. He seems likely to encourage outdoor recreation, for example, but sporting venues will not reopen immediately, he warned. “We’re not doing in-person sports yet no matter what. It’s not going to happen.”

And it’s too early to plan an excursion to the multiplex. “I’m not there yet on the movie theaters,” the governor said. “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.

On the other hand, hospitals likely will be cleared to resume the elective surgeries that DeSantis had banned — Tampa General plans to conduct its first such procedures on May 11. Schools, colleges, and universities have no plans to resume normal operations in the immediate future.

The P.R. campaign functioned as a valedictory tour, with the governor bragging that Florida’s caseload — 32,846 infections and 1,171 deaths as of Tuesday afternoon — is running behind early projections of hundreds of thousands of cases.

Furthermore, DeSantis noted Monday, the danger that hospitals might be overwhelmed — as happened in New York City — did not pan out. Indeed, 45 percent of the adult ICU beds in Miami-Dade County, among Florida’s hardest hit, remain available. State officials have been pouring medical supplies into the hardest hit counties.

“You’ve seen the hospital system hold up. There’s been capacity. That has never been an issue at any time during this,” he said.

Additionally, as the state has ramped up viral testing positive results have been coming in at around 5 percent, DeSantis said. An initial shipment of novel coronavirus antibody tests is due Friday in Miami-Dade, he added.

“If you have health care workers and they have the antibodies, then you know they’re at lower risk for infection.” Such screening also will help officials understand how the virus is moving through communities, he added.

Caution elsewhere

Most other big states are approaching reopening with caution, judging by  a survey by the Associated Press.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, for example, is predicating his next step on a significant increase in testing capacity, signaling that he may lift his stay-home order within a few weeks while cautioning people not to swarm beaches and other gathering places. The state is “just a few weeks away, not months away, from making measurable and meaningful changes,” he has said, according to this CNN report.

Additionally, Colorado and Nevada joined California, Oregon, and Washington in a Western States Pact to coordinate their approach to reopening, at least in part because of their lack of faith in the Trump administration.

“The West Coast is — and will continue to be — guided by SCIENCE,” Newsom said Monday on Twitter. “We issued our stay at home orders early to keep the public healthy. We’ll open our economies with that same guiding principle.”

Governors in the Northeast have formed their own pact, and New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey are mounting a “tracing army” to identify and isolate infected people, Bloomberg News reported.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has extended his stay-home order until the end of May — although a court case on the extension is pending, according to the Chicago Tribune. Pritzker is allowing nonessential surgeries to resume and retailers to offer curbside and delivery sales.

By contrast, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott will allow his stay-home order to expire, although bars, hair salons, and gyms will stay padlocked at least through mid-May, CNN reported. Restaurants, movie theaters, and malls can open if they restrict traffic to 25 percent of capacity. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has already reopened restaurants and movie theaters, plus gyms, hair salons, bowling alleys, and tattoo parlors, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said.

Florida’s governor announced the state’s first two COVID-19 cases on March 1 and declared a public health emergency. He ramped up testing, although hobbled by a shortage of supplies, but was slow to shut down the state at a time when his political patron, Trump, insisted that the pandemic was no big deal.

DeSantis argued that local officials were best positioned to respond to local circumstances at a time when many counties had yet to suffer COVID-19 infections and warned of quarantine fatigue should the state go too far in restricting people’s activities.

DeSantis did complain about mass gatherings on beaches and in bars and nightclubs for weeks before issuing a broad stay-home order on April 1 — and even that contained exemptions for houses of worship. He acted only after Trump extended federal social-distancing guidelines through April.

Earlier, he closed beaches and entertainment venues in Southeast Florida only, and restaurants and bars statewide to all but take-out orders. He blocked new vacation-rental agreements and ordered roadblocks to screen travelers from COVID-19 “hot spots” in the New York area and Louisiana. And he closed nursing homes and long-term living faciilties to all but residents and staff, although that didn’t prevent infections inside.

DeSantis signaled that state employees could work from home, although the word tricked down slowly to the ranks.

You’ll find a list of the governor’s executive orders here.

On April 17 the governor began allowing beaches to reopen contingent on local officials enforced social distancing. Duval County was among the first to avail itself of the opportunity and other jurisdictions followed. (Florida Politics has been surveying these reopenings here.)

Notable exceptions have included Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach counties, which have been carrying the highest caseloads, plus Hillsborough, Pasco, and Pinellas.

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.