With COVID-19 infections still spiking, Gov. DeSantis shows no signs of retreat on statewide masks, FL reopening

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Vice President Mike Pence both wore face masks while delivering supplies to a Florida nursing home on May 20, 2020. Credit: CSPAN screenshot

Note: This story has been updated to reflect the governor’s statements in Tampa.

Florida’s rate of new COVID-19 infections has surpassed 5,000 for the second day running. The governor of Texas has paused the opening of his state’s economy amid a similar spike in cases.

Yet Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has shown no sign of retreat from his own reopening plans.

During a news conference in Tampa, the governor acknowledged a rising rate of positive COVID test results but said most people who test positive never develop symptoms.

“We are where we are. I didn’t say we were going to go on to the next phase” of reopening, he said.

The caseload remained steady as the state reopened in May — at least until recently, DeSantis said. “We had a very quiet May, and I think everyone has to acknowledge that,” he added.

“Then you got into kind of Memorial Day, you had a lot of protests for two week, and it kind of fell off the front pages, and I think folks thought, ‘Hey, let’s move on to the next thing,’” he said.

“I think we know it’s not something that just goes away. It’s something that you’ve got to understand, you’ve got to live with. And I’m confident that people — if you follow guidelines, if you follow the instructions from the local and the state and the federal officials — you can do things in a low-risk way.”

Florida’s top elected Democrat called upon the Republican governor on Thursday to issue an executive order requiring people to wear masks in public.

“With 31,299 new cases in the past week alone, Florida has emerged as a new hotspot for COVID-19,” Nikki Fried, commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said in a written statement.

“While this pandemic threatens to spiral out of control, our leadership is rushing headlong into further re-opening the state. We must take basic protective measures immediately — that’s why today, I am calling on the governor to issue a statewide order requiring masks to be worn in public places,” she said.

“This is common sense, violates no one’s liberties, and follows the lead of 18 other states like North Carolina, Kentucky, and New York. If we’re to beat this virus together, we must all act together, with all Floridians doing their part.”

You can learn about the political and medical angles on face masks in this Florida Phoenix story.

The latest figures on the Florida Department of Health’s COVID dashboard reflect a second straight day with more than 5,000 infections — 5,026 recorded on Wednesday, compared to 5,472 the day before. Total infections were 114,018 and total deaths were 3,327.

DeSantis prefers to leave mask orders to local officials he considers best positioned to judge local conditions. He noted as Wednesday that the pandemic is most virulent in Florida’s metro areas and that some county sheriffs have indicated they won’t enforce any mask order.

However, the governor has been encouraging people to wear masks in public to avoid transmitting the coronavirus to susceptible older and sicker people. The median age for new infections as of Wednesday was 25, according to health department data.

Fried referred to a World Health Organization recommendation that states need to keep their positivity rates under 5 percent for two full weeks to justify reopening their economies. Florida’s rate is been near 16 percent, she said, and 42 percent of the total positive test results came in during June.

The commissioner has complained before that the governor has frozen her and other independently elected Florida Cabinet members out of discussions about COVID and other policies.

Florida enjoys a relatively low infection rate when measured per capita — 508 per 100,000 people, according to data maintained by The New York Times, and a death rate of 15. That’s well below the rates for states like New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, which experienced earlier outbreaks.

Texas has an infection rate of 453 per 100,000 and a death rate of 8, according to the Times data, with total infections at 131,310. Still, the state reported 5,500 new cases Wednesday.

That was enough for Gov. Greg Abbott to pause his reopening plans and bar nonemergency medical procedures to preserve hospital bed space, according to news organizations including CNBC. He’d begun allowing nonessential businesses to reopen in May.

Florida began reopening on May 1 with nonessential businesses including restaurants and museums and libraries opening their doors to heavily restricted numbers of customers. As of early June, restaurants and bars could operate at half capacity, contingent on social distancing and hygiene rules. Movie theaters and other entertainment venues, and personal services businesses including tattoo parlors, got the nod at the same time.