Gov. DeSantis isn’t walking a straight line toward Phase 2 of COVID-19 reopening

Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference April 29 in the state Capitol, discussing his "Safe. Smart. Step-by-Step." Plan for Florida's Recovery. Credit: Screenshot, Florida Channel.

It’s been roughly a month since Gov. Ron DeSantis launched Phase 1 of a plan to reopen Florida’s economy following his COVID-19 stay-home executive orders. We’ve seen the return of sit-down restaurants, hair and nail salons, even kids’ summer camps, with some limitations.

So, when do we get to Phase 2? That would require evidence of continued decline, or at least containment, of the disease.

His administration hasn’t said much about the governor’s plans in this regard, even as other states in the nation have launched a Phase 2 reopening.

Florida’s Department of Emergency Management, which is coordinating messaging on COVID, didn’t respond to repeated requests for information about the process. Neither has Helen Aguirre Ferré, the governor’s communications chief, replied to questions about DeSantis’ thinking.

But one thing is for sure: The governor has never followed his own guidelines rigorously.

In announcing the opening of Phase 1, for example, he was more conservative in several areas — for example, allowing restaurants to open at 25 percent capacity instead of the recommended 50 percent, and keeping sports venues and gyms closed against advice they could be reopened.

Florida is extending the “reopening” of Florida by allowing gyms to open, with social distancing and other measures. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

On the other hand, the governor has already OK’d steps that, under the guidelines, would await Phase 2 — reopening hair and nail salons, gyms and vacation rentals; boosting restaurants to 50 percent capacity; reopening some state parks.

Additionally, Florida’s theme parks have been preparing to reopen with DeSantis’ blessing, and he has been urging sports teams to move games to Florida if their hometowns won’t allow play. (He’s already allowed a professional wrestling event, although without fans.)

DeSantis has even been angling to bring the Republican National Convention to Florida if it can’t be held in Charlotte, N.C.

“Florida would love to have the RNC,” DeSantis said this week.

So Phase 1 seems to be melding into Phase 2, but the formality of a next phase has yet to occur.

Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville, who leads her fellow Democrats in the state Senate, is dubious about the whole process.

“It is just one big Phase-whatever — that way he doesn’t have to explain anything,” she told the Phoenix.

DeSantis may have offered a clue about Phase 2 during a news conference Friday in Boca Raton, in response to a question about whether he plans to extend his moratorium on mortgage foreclosures and residential evictions, which expires on Tuesday.

He said, “I haven’t decided yet” but would “pretty soon.”

Barbershops, hair and nail salons to reopen in Florida. J Henry’s Barber Shop in Orlando makes the announcement from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Twitter feed. Credit: Ron DeSantis Twitter account.

He added: “We’ve got a bunch of different things that are expiring. We obviously are also going to look at Florida’s overall posture on some of the restrictions. So, we’ll be having a lot of announcements, I think, over the next few days.”

One thing seems clear: The governor won’t be bound by hard-and-fast adherence to guidelines, whether issued by the Trump administration or his own task force on COVID and the economy. He certainly has not felt himself so constrained thus far.

Not that DeSantis himself hasn’t been discussing Florida’s progress through the three phases of reopening, which the Trump administration laid out in a document headed “Opening Up America Again.”

Beginning with the April 29 news conference in which he announced the onset of Phase 1, DeSantis envisioned a process that would be deliberate but not drawn not. “Each phase, we’re thinking about weeks; we’re not thinking about months,” he said at the time.

The Trump plan established “gating criteria” that states should satisfy before advancing through three phases.

Symptoms of COVID and other influenza-like illness should evidence a 14-day downward trajectory. Likewise, either caseloads or positive coronavirus test results should decline for 14 days. Finally, hospitals must be able to treat all patients and have “robust” testing for health care workers, including antibody tests.

“State and local officials may need to tailor the application of these criteria to local circumstances (e.g., metropolitan areas that have suffered severe COVID outbreaks, rural and suburban areas where outbreaks have not occurred or have been mild),” the document says.

“Additionally, where appropriate, governors should work on a regional basis to satisfy these criteria and to progress through the phases outlined below.”

New infections reported between May 17 and May 25 do not reflect a clean downward trajectory — although, as DeSantis has noted many times, tests aren’t necessarily reported on the day performed and that can skew the trendline.

Novel coronavirus SARS CoV2, which causes COVID-19. Microphotography by National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases

As of Friday, the Florida Department of Health had recorded 54,497 COVID infections, including nonresidents, and 2,413 deaths. DeSantis has stressed he is most concerned about long-term residential facilities for the elderly and infirm, where 1,585 residents had positive tests as of Friday out of 144,006 total.

The governor also points to prisons as a major disease vector. The Department of Health has documented 12 inmate deaths.

As for the hospitalization rate, COVID patients comprised 6.8 percent of Florida’s non-ICU beds as of Friday and between 32 percent and 49 percent of ICU beds.

Under full Phase 2, the guidelines recommend that vulnerable people continue to stay at home but observe social distancing if they go out. The recommended size for gatherings is no more than 50 people. Employers would still encourage telecommuting but begin planning for normal operations, including employee screening.

Entertainment venues would operate at 75 percent capacity as long as employees wear face masks. Local governments could resume in-person meetings — again, with controls on crowd size.