COVID-19: Thursday a.m.

By News Service of Florida Staff

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Department of Health released updated numbers Wednesday evening about the coronavirus in the state. Here are some takeaways:

— 1,977: Number of confirmed cases in Florida.

— 295: Increase in cases from an earlier count Wednesday.

— 23: Deaths of Florida residents, after a death in Citrus County.

— 1,044: Number of cases in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

— 52.8: Percentage of cases in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

— 123: Number of cases in Hillsborough County, the largest number outside of Southeast Florida.

— 89: Number of cases in Orange County, the largest number in the middle of the state.

— 60: Number of cases in Duval County, the largest number in Northeast Florida.

— 57: Number of cases in Collier County, the largest number in Southwest Florida.

— 18: Number of cases in Okaloosa County, the largest number in Northwest Florida.

— 3: Counties with one case each (Bradford, Gadsden and Jackson).

— 21: Counties with no reported cases.

Source: Florida Department of Health

Trump Approves Major Disaster Declaration for Florida

FLORIDA — FEMA announced that federal emergency aid has been made available for the state of Florida to supplement the state, tribes and local recovery efforts in the areas affected by the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic beginning on January 20, 2020, and continuing.

The President’s action makes federal funding available for Crisis Counseling for affected individuals in all areas of the state of Florida.

Federal funding is also available to state, tribal, and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency protective measures (Category B), including direct federal assistance under Public Assistance, for all areas affected by COVID-19 at a federal cost share of 75 percent.

Gracia B. Szczech has been named as the Federal Coordinating Officer for federal recovery operations in the affected area. Additional designations may be made at a later date if requested by the state and warranted by the results of further assessments.

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. – Hurlburt Field officials have elevated the Health Protection Condition (HPCON) Level to Charlie and have declared a public health emergency for the installation.

The elevation to Charlie is part of the ongoing response to COVID-19 concerns.

“The COVID-19 situation is very dynamic,” said Col. Mike Conley, commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing. “Given the current situation, escalating the Health Protection Condition to Charlie is a logical next step to maintaining the health of our force, our families and our mission readiness. I’m talking daily with my counterparts around the panhandle, and while we each face slightly different problem sets, we’re very much tackling this issue as a team.”

HPCON Charlie indicates a substantial disease threat and is employed due to a local epidemic outbreak of a disease, imminent spread of such a disease to the local area, and/or a wide area of contamination that requires special avoidance procedures.

In conjunction with elevating to HPCON Charlie, Col Conley has declared a public health emergency on base after close consultation with military public health officials. This directive provides military officials greater flexibility and resources to prepare for, respond to and recover from COVID-19 impacts while also maintaining operational readiness. This designation authorizes the installation commander to implement emergency health powers, such as authorizing restrictions on movement, limiting base access, using facilities, materials, or services to assist an emergency response and direct medical testing, similar to emergency declarations made by state or local government officials.

“These measures will allow Hurlburt Field to proactively prepare for and manage a unified response to the conditions caused by COVID-19 with our military partners at Eglin AFB and the local community,” said Col. Conley. “They are intended to keep Hurlburt Field in line with the steps already taken by local government officials.”

By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis has shut down bars and restaurants, cut off visitation at nursing homes and prisons and ordered senior citizens to stay home, as he attempts to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But the Republican governor’s efforts have sparked a partisan divide over whether he needs to do more to protect Floridians from COVID-19, the respiratory infection caused by the virus that can be deadly for seniors and people with serious health conditions.

Florida Democrats have been lambasting DeSantis for not issuing a statewide “shelter in place” order that would replicate directives governors, mayors and county commissioners in other parts of the nation have made to stunt the spread of the virus.

On Wednesday, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden joined the chorus of DeSantis critics, delivering a double-handed smack to the Florida governor and his close ally, President Donald Trump. Trump, too, has balked at issuing a national mandate similar to fiats delivered by New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine.

Cuomo and DeWine “are stepping up during this time of crisis to fill the void and protect our most vulnerable,” Biden said in a prepared statement issued by his campaign.

“Floridians deserve science-based action from Gov. Ron DeSantis,” the former vice president said, adding that the governor should “let the experts speak to the public and explain” why Florida hasn’t gone further.

“In this moment of growing uncertainty and anxiety, Floridians want — and deserve — to hear from the public health officials leading the charge,” Biden said in the statement. “To get through this, we need our leaders to listen to the public health experts and their guidance. The stakes are too high to wait any longer.”

DeSantis has issued a series of executive orders aimed at limiting face-to-face interactions and has encouraged Floridians to practice “social distancing” on their own. But the governor has eschewed a more hardline statewide approach, citing concerns about intensifying the virus’ negative impact on the state’s economy.

Instead, DeSantis has left decisions about home quarantines up to local officials, whose restrictions have run the gamut from mild, including allowing beaches to remain open to the public, to severe, including numerous counties’ stay-at-home orders.

DeSantis bristled Wednesday when a reporter asked him if the variety of mandates were sending a “mixed message” to the public.

“It’s not a mixed message,” he snapped.

The governor said Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, on Tuesday called Florida’s response to the pandemic “a thoughtful data-driven approach.”

“Dr. Fauci said not every instrument is appropriate in every population in the country,” DeSantis added, referring to Tony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who also serves on the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

DeSantis said he worked with Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties to issue orders that closed South Florida beaches.

“But I also think there are certain parts of the state where you have more sporadic cases and to order someone not to be able to earn a paycheck, when them going to work is not going to have any effect on what we’re doing with the virus, that is something that I think is inappropriate,” he said.

The governor also said he was considering the “second-order effect” of statewide shutdowns, such as New York’s shelter-in-place order, which DeSantis said sparked “thousands and thousands of people to flee” to other states.

“And so that’s going to make it more difficult, I think nationwide, for us to be able to, to get a grip on this stuff,” he said during a news conference at a Division of Emergency Management warehouse in Orlando.

DeSantis also pointed to images of crowded California beaches, after Gov. Gavin Newsome ordered the state’s 40 million residents to stay home.

“You probably are less dangerous just driving your car to the office than being with crowds of hundreds of people. So you just got to think it through, but I’ve supported the local things, and it’s a more surgical approach, but it also is mitigating any damage that would be done for blunt instruments being applied in places throughout the state where (it) wouldn’t be appropriate,” he argued.

State and national health officials, meanwhile, have been reticent about the need for statewide stay-at-home orders.

“I don’t think necessarily every single situation, every single region or location, needs to be that way. But certainly, in the response to the kind of situation that you’re seeing in New York, I think that was an appropriate move,” Fauci said Friday in an interview on “CBS Evening News.”

But with more than 1,600 cases of COVID-19, including 22 deaths, in Florida, Democrats aren’t backing down from their demand that DeSantis take a more strident stance.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — the only Democrat elected statewide — said Wednesday that the “piecemeal approach” throughout the state has confused people.

“We need to be taking the full recommendation of all the experts we are seeing, not only across the state but across the country who are saying the only way to stop the virus from spreading is to do stay-at-home shelters,” Fried told reporters. “This is not a partisan issue. It’s not Democrat versus Republican. You are seeing Republican governors all across the country that are putting these types of order in place.”

Fried said DeSantis is forcing mayors and city and county commissioners “to make drastic steps that they wish was coming from the governor’s office.”

A group of Florida congressional Democrats sent a letter to DeSantis on Wednesday, emphasizing the need for a statewide shelter-in-place order.

“With the highest concentration of older residents of any state, Florida is at even greater risk of serious impacts on the health of our residents and burden on our health care system. … We understand the grave economic consequences this action will have. But hoping to dull the impacts on the economy in the short term by delaying a shelter-in-place order will only exacerbate those impacts in the medium and long term,” the congressional Democrats said in the letter.

Trump’s campaign, however, blasted the Democrats for “politicizing a national emergency” while the president and DeSantis “are leading an unprecedented, comprehensive, and aggressive approach to slow the spread of the coronavirus and jumpstart the economy.”

“Instead of playing games, it is time to come together as Floridians and support critical aid for Florida’s families, businesses and health care community,” Trump campaign Florida spokeswoman Emma Vaughn said in an email.

DeSantis is in no hurry to sign budget
By The News Service of Florida

Gov. Ron DeSantis said he isn’t in a rush to review the $93.2 billion budget or nearly 200 other bills recently approved by the Legislature as he focuses on the fight against COVID-19. DeSantis also told reporters Wednesday that the state might not have to dip deep into its nearly $4 billion in reserves with President Donald Trump declaring earlier in the day that a major disaster exists in Florida.

“I’m just going to let the budget sit for now. I’m not going to start vetoing everything, and I’m not going to sign it yet,” DeSantis said. “Let’s see where we are, and let’s kind of see how the situation unfolds. This is a constant thing where you are reassessing everything you know.”

Trump’s declaration makes federal funding available to supplement state, tribal, and local recovery efforts. DeSantis said the state could also benefit from a federal stimulus package. But questions center on how long state sales-tax revenues will slump with businesses, including the vital tourism industry, on hold.

“The hit to the budget will just simply be an effect of what happens with the economy,” DeSantis said. “How does this thing turn? When does it turn? So, we are going to monitor that and see how the next few weeks turn out. Then we’ll make a decision on that.”

The budget and 196 other measures technically haven’t been sent to the governor’s office. When DeSantis receives bills, he has 15 days to sign, veto or allow them to become law without his signature. He also has line-item veto power on the budget. DeSantis’ comments Wednesday echoed statements this week by House and Senate officials, who said the chambers are working to pace the delivery of the bills around the state’s response to the highly contagious and deadly disease.