Good idea or grave concern? Palm Beach County to ‘reopen’ Monday, despite large numbers of infections and deaths

Mar-a-Lago, President Trump's official address, is located in Palm Beach County. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Gov. Ron DeSantis will allow Palm Beach County to join most of the rest of Florida Monday in opening businesses at reduced capacity and indicated that Broward and Miami-Dade counties might soon follow.

The decision came notwithstanding Florida Department of Health figures showing Palm Beach County is one of the worse-hit areas  by the coronavirus pandemic in Florida.

As of Friday, Palm Beach reported 3,615 infections, 229 deaths overall, and 73 deaths in long-term care facilities. Only Miami-Dade and Broward had higher numbers. Together, the three counties have accounted for 58.5 percent of Florida’s COVID caseload and 56.6 percent of its deaths.

“I have grave concerns about the decision to reopen before truly lessening the spread of COVID-19,” state Sen. Lori Berman, a Delray Beach Democrat, said in a written statement.

The governor had treated Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade differently in his attempt to boost Florida’s economy, excluding them from “Phase 1″ of his plan for reopening Florida, which took effect on Monday.

By Friday, DeSantis was prepared to treat at least Palm Beach the same as the rest of the state.

DeSantis suggested Palm Beach met guidelines laid down by the Trump administration for easing of social distancing requirements meant to slow spread of COVID-19, including a decline in the number of positive coronavirus test results and ample hospital capacity.

“We think that they’re ready for it. I think the people here are very smart. We understand the responsibility that we all have to protect the vulnerable populations here,” DeSantis said during a news conference in West Palm Beach.

Southeast Florida has been hard hit by COVID-19, apparently because of travel from the Northeastern United States and overseas.

State Sen. Berman called the move to reopen Palm Beach County “troubling.”

She noted the county’s 17 percent hospitalization rate for COVID and 6 percent death rate. “One or more county residents continues to die almost every single day,” she said in a written statement.

“I also question whether we truly have a robust contact tracing program in place to handle any subsequent surge,” Berman said.

“We recognize the need for a return to normal — our economy is struggling. But lives are more important than short term economic gain. Palm Beach County needs a more concrete and accessible testing regime in place before moving forward with reopening.”

DeSantis emphasized the region’s economic importance and that the return to normal will be measured.

“I think Palm Beach is incredibly important for our state,” DeSantis said.

“This is not like flipping a switch; it’s not just going to go back overnight. But I think if we take nice, strong, methodical, safe steps forward, we’re going to be able to get people back to work.”

DeSantis indicated that Broward and Miami-Dade might follow in about 10 days.

County officials in the region had appealed to the governor to lift the strict social distancing regime that he’d imposed in early April, and that he began lifting in all but Southeast Florida on Monday.

A busy day

In a busy day on the COVID front, DeSantis also:

— Extended a broad executive order he signed on March 9 declaring a state of emergency because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That order authorized state and local agencies to waive laws, ordinances, and regulations if necessary to contain the outbreak. No state of emergency can last past 60 days unless a governor extends it.

— Dangled the possibility of allowing family members to visit loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes.

— Sharply criticized large corporations that took federal Paycheck Protection Plan loans that Congress intended for small business.

— Announced via a surrogate on the governor’s social media pages that barber shops, beauty parlors, and nail salons will reopen Monday subject to social distancing and sanitary precautions.

“I don’t want this stuff going to some of these multinational corporations. I think that was really, really, wrong to have some of those business taking that,” the governor said during a news conference in Jacksonville.

“I would say, any business in Florida that has taken it should return it. And we need get it in the hands of the small business folks,” he said.

Reuters reported this week that 41 publicly traded companies, including 17 worth at least $100 million, had won $104 million in PPP money.

“There have definitely been some, I would say, bad actors of people, companies, who have gotten millions and millions of dollars who were never forced to close, who were continuing to operate, and they just took advantage of that,” DeSantis said.

He said he hopes to find additional ways to provide state or other federal aid to assist “mom-and-pop” or “family-owned-type” businesses.

Nursing homes

Regarding the nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, the governor acknowledged earlier in the day in Jacksonville that his rule against allowing visitors, intended to reduce transmission of COVID-19, has created hardship.

“You had sons and daughters that would go visit their moms and dads all the time, and then that’s been taken away. And that was done out of an abundance of caution, but I recognize that that causes problems too. And I recognize that there’s probably some residents who say. ‘We think we’re safe enough, like, I think it’s low risk, I would want to be able to see family,” he said.

Possibilities include rapid-result viral or antibody testing and requiring use of personal protective equipment, he said.

“But we’ve got to figure out a way to do that that’s not going to present a risk to the other residents here. I think you can, and I think we’re now at a [point] where we’re doing a lot of testing in these facilities, you have a lot of the staff that’s being tested. And that’s a good thing; we need to keep doing that,” the governor added.

“People who are on their deathbeds, and they’re not allowed to have a family member there to hold their hand, to say goodbye, to hug them one last time. Those are moments that you just can’t get back. That’s a tremendous social cost to doing these protective measures.

DeSantis, is a conservative Republican who has consulted with President Trump on COVID strategy and increasingly has adopted Trump’s tone while campaigning across the state to promote what he sees as a winning strategy against the pandemic, reflected in generous hospital capacity and a declining ratio of positive to negative viral testing results.

Effective Monday, he began easing some of the restrictions he imposed in early April on “non-essential” businesses, allowing restaurants, shops, some state parks, libraries, and museums to reopen at limited capacity outside Southeast Florida.

To date, state officials have reported 39,199 Florida infections with 1,669 deaths related to COVID-19. They included 665 deaths among staff or residents of long-term care facilities — nearly 40 percent of the total toll.

DeSantis appeared at Dolphin Pointe Health Care in Jacksonville, which is accepting only COVID-positive patients from other nursing homes who don’t require hospitalization, to prevent spread of the disease in the other facilities.

Dolphin Pointe has rooms set up to prevent virus from spreading elsewhere. It has taken 17 patients from as far afield as Monticello and expect another seven in the next few days.

Among the first steps the state took were to bar visits to nursing homes, require screening of workers, and require them to wear personal protection equipment. Additionally, the state has sent almost 10 million masks, 1 million gloves, and 500,000 face shields to these facilities, the governor said.

Furthermore, state teams have scrutinized procedures at facilities reporting COVID cases and conducted surveillance testing. And this week an RV-based mobile testing lab began visiting facilities; capable of conducting 3,500 tests per week of residents and staff with same-day results.

In Jacksonville, DeSantis argued that the 20,000 test results the state received on Friday, only 361 were positive, or under 2 percent, including from hard-hit Southeast Florida. That in part reflects expansion of testing to asymptomatic people, he said.

Acela corridor

He took time to bash Northeastern states for their handling of the pandemic”, and of press in the “Acela” corridor — shorthand in conservative circles for “elites.”

“It’s drive-by smear and then pretend that we’re not going to remember what you did. Well, we remember that, we have the facts,” DeSantis said.

In other comments, DeSantis reiterated in West Palm that he will submit to Trump a plan to screen international air travelers for COVID.

“You look at Brazil or some of these places in South America, if they have the epidemic on the upswing there and people are coming into Florida, they could be introducing that. That should not be a risk that is placed on Floridians. That’s something that the airlines need to work out on the front end.”

Asked about the state’s failed unemployment compensation system, DeSantis said the Department of Economic Opportunity has paid $1.1 billion in claims during the past six weeks to 500,000 claimants. He’s asked the state’s inspector general to investigate the system, which cost taxpayers $77.9 million to construct but could not estimate when the probe will be completed.

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.