As Florida passed the 300,000 mark for COVID-19 infections, members of the Florida Senate’s Democratic Caucus demanded Wednesday that Gov. Ron DeSantis immediately restrict the capacity for businesses to 25 percent — a retreat from the existing 50 percent.
The Democratic senators said that the restrictions would loosen only when COVID-19 positive test results consistently decline to no more than 5 percent.
They called it their “step back to safety plan.”
Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville, the caucus leader, said during a Zoom conference call Wednesday that the plan is based on recommendations from medical experts including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Positive test numbers continue to skyrocket along with new records for death from the pandemic in the state of Florida,” Gibson said.
As she spoke, the Florida Department of Health released the results of coronavirus tests conducted Tuesday: 10,181 new positive cases and 112 Florida resident deaths, bringing the total to 301,810 infections and 4,521 deaths. The percentage of positive cases for the day was 13.59.
“Our view is that there’s failed leadership in the governor’s office. There’s also a total disregard of the plans and recommendations that Senate Democrats have made, who are a part of this state and who represent people of the state of Florida in our districts,” Gibson said.
DeSantis has mostly refused to backtrack on his own reopening plans, including reopening public schools for five days per week next month, or to issue a statewide mask mandate. He is allowing local governments to order masks worn in public.
DeSantis generally ignores the Democrats and in any event wasn’t asked about the details of their proposal during his news conference Wednesday evening.
One reporter did put to him a question proposed by one Democratic senator earlier in the day. As she put it: “How many more people have to die before you consider scaling back on your reopening plan?”
“We’re working very hard every day to prevent not only the deaths but, obviously, significant hospitalizations,” the governor said.
He cited his focus on the most vulnerable people, especially in nursing homes. “We’ve had people from the Florida Health Care association, some of them say, you know, we’ve been able to save probably thousands of lives when you look at all the efforts to protect residents of long term care facilities.”
The Senate Republican office had not responded to a request for comment as of this writing.
Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said he wasn’t aware of the particulars of the Democratic plan but said it “it sounds to me like a political solution, not a medical solution.”
“It’s dangerous when people start throwing out arbitrary numbers,” Wilson said. “What we need to be focused on is how can we have every industry safely welcoming their employees back, their vendors back, and their customers back.”
But, “Listen to the science. Listen to the medical experts,” said Sen. Darryl Rouson, who represents parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
Sen. Oscar Braynon, representing parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties insisted the step back is necessary to win control over the pandemic.
“You have to sacrifice a little bit now so that you don’t end up hurting yourself in the future. And that’s what apparently our governor doesn’t understand,” he said.
“If we don’t take a step back now, what will happen? And look, they won’t have very much control over whether this happens or not — we’re going to have to close this economy back down again. The people of Florida don’t want that. The people of Florida can’t handle that.”
School reopening should be delayed until positive test results, county by county, decline to no more than 5 percent for 14 consecutive days, the Democrats argued.
DeSantis “rushed to reopen bars instead of creating a safe plan to reopen our schools,” said Sen. Janet Cruz of Hillsborough County. “Why was the reopening of schools an afterthought — that’s my question,” she said.
Cruz doubted the state can find the money to supply soap, hand sanitizer, and other safeguards in already overcrowded schools. “We cannot even control an outbreak of lice in our schools, so how are we going to control not spreading this virus?” she asked.
“Herd immunity as a strategy might work well for an impala on the African plains, but the calculus isn’t the same when it’s our grandparents, when it’s our teachers, or anybody else that’s immunocompromised in our state,” Cruz said.
“We are past being upset about this,” said Sen. Perry Thurston of Broward County.
“This is now affecting us in a way that our families are unsafe. You’re attempting to open schools and make our children unsafe. This is beyond the pale, and it’s being done because we’ve got a governor who’s walking lockstep with the president. The president doesn’t know what he’s doing and the governor is in denial. And that’s the problem,” Thurston said.
Update: This story has been changed to include comments from the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Gov. DeSantis.