Gov. DeSantis on COVID: ‘This whole idea of essential-nonessential really needs to be rethought’

Gov. Ron DeSantis participated in a round-table discussion with transportation-construction executives on Aug. 7, 2020, in Orlando. Credit: Screenshot

Gov. Ron DeSantis is questioning some key elements of his COVID-19 response, including the distinction between nonessential and essential jobs and using coronavirus test results to determine when people can return to their workplaces.

“I think this whole idea of essential-nonessential really needs to be rethought,” the governor said.

“The fact of the matter is, pretty much anyone’s job is essential to them,” he said.

White-collar employees can work from homes but the blue-collar workers who can’t do their jobs remotely “bear the brunt” of the COVID-related economic dislocation if they’re in industries deemed nonessential, DeSantis said.

The governor appeared to be thinking aloud and did not suggest any specific policy changes.

“It’s something that really does need to be rethought going forward,” he said.

DeSantis spoke during a roundtable discussion in Orlando with construction executives touting his decision to speed up transportation projects while traffic thinned out during the height of his COVID stay-home guidelines.

The state shaved 650 days off more than 50 projects throughout the state and kept people working, he said.

Also on Friday, the Florida Department of Health reported receipt of 7,686 new positive COVID-19 test results as of midnight and 180 Florida resident deaths. That brought the totals to 518,075 Florida cases and 7,927 deaths.

An executive order DeSantis issued on April 2 urged that “all persons in Florida shall limit their movements and personal interactions outside of their home to only those necessary to obtain or provide essential services or conduct essential activities.”

The order defines essential services by referring to guidelines issued by Miami-Dade County and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that stipulate a wide range of industries, including defense, energy, food, transportation, health care, information technology, and critical manufacturing. It also stipulates that houses or worship are engaged in essential activities.

DeSantis also specifically closed some industries, including bars, restaurants, theaters, barber shops and hair salons, and gyms. Many of those business have since reopened subject to social distancing, although the administration re-closed bars.

“I interpreted that broadly because I wanted as many people to go to work as possible. But it’s inadequate. I don’t think it’s something we should continue in terms of that framework in the future,” he said Friday.

“I also think that, particularly with the coronavirus, COVID-19, that it has a disproportionate effect on the elderly and folks with serious co-morbidities. It’s not even a good proxy for shielding the people that needed to be shielded,” he continued.

The main thing, he said, is to “keep society as healthy as you can. You want people gainfully employed. But to send someone out of work, that’s just going to add to the anxiety and stress and fear that’s out there.”

He said of hair salons, which he reopened on May 9, along with barber shops and nail salons: “You go in there, it’s like an operating room. I mean, they’re really keeping it clean.”

DeSantis also questioned the use of a particular coronavirus test — PCR, for polymerase chain reaction diagnostic test — in determining when infected workers can return to their jobs safely. These tests can detect viral particles for up to 12 weeks following an infection, even though the patient has no live virus capable of infecting other people, he said.

“You don’t want a situation where you’re not screening people to come back to the workforce, because if they come back and they’re infectious then obviously they can infect other people. We want to avoid that,” DeSantis said.

“But you also don’t want a situation in which healthy people are being told they can’t come back to work, or told that they have to isolate for 14 days or however long. I think we’re seeing more and more with these tests, you have false positives,” he continued.

“I think the symptom-based approach makes much more sense,” and is the approach hospitals are taking, DeSantis said.