Gov. DeSantis won’t interfere with cities that require residents to wear face masks in public amid COVID spike

Gov. Ron DeSantis at news conference in Fort Lauderdale in April. Credit: Florida Channel screenshot.

Update:

Gov. Ron DeSantis staged a news conference Saturday as as the daily number of new COVID-19 cases exceeded 4,000, and appeared to shift his explanation for the rising caseload from increased testing to community spread among young people.

He reiterated that the median age for new infections has shifted from seniors to people in their 20s and 30s. The clinical repercussions in that age group tend to be less severe than for older people, he said, but he suggested that might lead them to take the virus less seriously.

“When you see positivity in some of these counties, you know, go from 5 percent last week to 10 percent, you know, that’s an indication, certainly in that age group, that you’re seeing more transmission in the community,” DeSantis said.

“It’s not purely a function of the fact that they’re testing more. Part of it is that. But you are seeing a higher positivity rate. So, those are things that we’ve got to tackle. And we’re looking forward to doing that.”

A short time later, the Florida Department of Health issued an advisory recommending — but not mandating — wearing masks when people can’t maintain social distancing unless are children under age 2; people with conditions that prevent face coverings; or working or playng outside and observing social distancing.

The advisory sanctioned removing a face covering temporarily when necessary to perform a service or when wearing one is incompatible with professional or work duties.

The advisory said older and sick people should continue to stay home and that everyone should avoid gatherings of 50 people or more and stay at least six feet away from each other.

As in the past, DeSantis stopped short of issuing a mask mandate, although he is allowing local governments to do that.

Asked why no state mandate, DeSantis said:

“You have to enforce that and you have to make a decision about what type of penalties you think are appropriate. I think statewide penalties would be problematic for a whole host of reasons. And I think we’ve just got to trust people, give them an opportunity to do the good things, make good decisions. I think that that tends to work better than to mandate this, mandate that.”

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As Florida registered another record-setting 3,822 new COVID-19 cases and 43 deaths Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he won’t interfere with local governments that enact mask mandates for their residents who venture out in public.

During a news conference in Miami that capped a week of bad news on the COVID front, the governor reiterated that he saw the rise in caseloads as a result of increased testing, and not his policy of reopening businesses including bars, restaurants, and fitness clubs.

Neither has he seen definitive evidence that the Black Lives Matter protests have spread the coronavirus, although it is reasonable to suggest that they might, he suggested.

“I mean, some of these were 20,000, 25,000 people,” DeSantis said of the demonstrations that broke out nationally following the police-brutality death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“All of a sudden, social distancing took a back seat to social justice. The thing is, from a public health perspective, you may think that protest is the most important thing you can do as a citizen. I respect that,” he said.

“But understand, from a virus perspective, gathering with 5,000 people to protest something that’s important to you is no different from gathering with 5,000 people to do something else that may not be considered as significant.”

COVID cases and deaths definitely have spiked this week: 85,926 infections and 3,061 deaths on Thursday, following 2,610 cases and 3,018 deaths on Wednesday, with smaller but still significant rises in the preceding days.

The total now is 89,748 cases and 3,104 deaths.

Accompanied by South Florida health care executives during his event at Florida International University, DeSantis emphasized the bright spots, including that Florida has twice as many hospital beds available than it did early in the pandemic — 25 percent of capacity, as opposed to 12.6 back then.

But he and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez conceded that people have crowded into bars, restaurants, and other gathering places in defiance of social distancing guidelines meant to contain infections.

As a result, some local governments — including Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Orange County, according to this News4Jax report — are enacting mask mandates.

Giménez pointed to “lax enforcement” of social distancing mandates by some businesses, and to “the younger folks don’t think that it’s quite as important, and so we’re going to be cracking down on that here.”

“We are not preempting any of that,” DeSantis, who has declined to issue a statewide mask directive, said.

“I’ve told the mayor here, ‘You’ve got to take the decisions that you think are going to work well in Dade.’ And we’ve encouraged him to do that. We’ve put them on, basically, their own trajectory. Likewise, you have some of these other municipalities, if they want to do that,” he said.

Images of large groups gathering in defiance of safety guidelines may have encouraged others to flout the rules, DeSantis said.

“I think that’s why you’re seeing — or part of the reason — I think why you’re seeing, you know, some of the positivity go up, particularly in that lower age group,” he added.

“A lot of this is voluntary compliance. You’re just not going to be able to police every single group of people every single time. So, I think as you get into this month after month, I think people do get a little tired, particularly in some of the age groups that may not be as at risk,” the governor said.

DeSantis noted that the median age for positive test results is 37, and that most of those people are not symptomatic. At the beginning of the pandemic, the median age was in the 60s, the demographic group most vulnerable to serious symptoms or death, he said.

“Yes, it’s skewing younger, but these younger people are testing positive at a higher rate. That’s something we’re going to have to deal with,” DeSantis said.

For one thing, he said, the state is preparing public service announcements “about the social distance, about the hygiene, about wearing the mask when you get close to people, things like that. And, hopefully, that will be something that will register.”