TAMPA — The coronavirus case numbers are worse than ever in Florida.
But on Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence came to Tampa with a message for the Sunshine State: Florida is in a good position to weather the storm.
“I want the people of Florida to know we’re in a much better place thanks to the leadership of President (Donald) Trump, the innovation of American industry and to the partnership that we’ve forged, not just in testing, but in personal protective equipment,” Pence said in an event with Gov. Ron DeSantis at the University of South Florida Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation.
Pence and DeSantis, along with several federal health officials, noted a handful of differences between the current outbreak in Florida and the earlier ones in New York and Seattle this spring. Treatment options have improved, testing capabilities have expanded and hospitals are ready for a surge.
Now is not the time to close down the economy again to prevent further spread, Pence said, citing all of those factors. Particularly not when the nation’s workforce is rebounding. The economy added 4.8 million jobs in June.
“We don’t have to choose between opening up America and the health of our people,” Pence said at the event.
Despite the upbeat attitude of the news conference, Florida faces a daunting reality. Some testing sites in the state’s hot spots routinely run out of supplies with a line of cars still waiting. Hospitalizations are on the rise, particularly in south Florida. Although elderly Floridians have made up a disproportionate amount of the state’s death toll, an 11-year-old boy in Miami-Dade was one of 68 new victims of the disease reported by the state Thursday.
In April, DeSantis triumphantly declared Florida had “flattened the curve.” But Pence unwittingly underscored the dangers of such statements by suggesting that Florida still has that challenge ahead.
“We can flatten the curve in Florida just like we have in other parts of the country,” Pence said.
The visit was another marker in the dramatic shift in the prognosis for Florida in recent weeks. A state once heralded by Trump for its low positive testing rate is now seeing one of the worst outbreaks in the world. White House officials acknowledge they are paying attention to developments here.
“We were watching this area, Tampa, very closely, through March, through April, through May, through your reopening,” said Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force. “This virus came to Tampa and spread through Tampa sometime along the end of May.”
Ahead of Pence’s arrival, former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, blasted the Trump administration and top Florida Republicans.
“Vice President Mike Pence and Governor DeSantis have a lot in common — most notably that both failed to effectively address the COVID-19 pandemic seriously or with urgency,” Biden said in a campaign statement. “This is all in addition to the Trump administration and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s ongoing fight to invalidate the Affordable Care Act in the Supreme Court amid this pandemic.”
Thursday was not the first time Pence has visited Florida during the pandemic. Just a few days after Trump put Pence in charge of the White House Coronavirus Task Force back in March, the vice president headlined a fundraiser for Congressional Republicans in Sarasota.
And in May, as Florida looked to be flattening the curve of new reported coronavirus cases, Pence came to Orlando to talk about reopening the state with DeSantis. It was outside that briefing that DeSantis launched into a memorable, viral rant about what he said was unfair media coverage of the state’s response to the virus.
“We’ve succeeded, and I think that people just don’t want to recognize it because it challenges their narrative,” DeSantis said then.
On Thursday, Pence came to the Sunshine State amid very different circumstances. Florida reported a record-breaking 10,109 new cases ahead of the July 4th holiday weekend. The state’s seven-day average for deaths rose to 42 per day, the highest it’s been since May 9. And 329 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, the third-highest single day figure since the start of the pandemic.
As cases in the state reached new highs, DeSantis again lashed out at a favorite target.
“I think the media was trying to say the numbers (from May) were phony, now they like the numbers because they’re higher,” DeSantis said. “It’s funny how that works.”
Although the state banned bars from serving alcohol June 26, DeSantis, a Republican, has declined to issue any further economic restrictions aimed at slowing the spread. In Texas, which is seeing a similar surge in cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order Thursday requiring Texans who live in counties with 20 or more confirmed coronavirus cases must wear facial coverings.
DeSantis has argued against a similar order for Florida, saying it would be ineffective. Instead, he’s urged Floridians — particularly the state’s elderly — to remain vigilant and practice social distancing.
Pence will be back in Florida at least once more this summer when the Republican National Convention comes to Jacksonville. Pence said Trump and the GOP are looking forward to the event and gave no sign that they are reconsidering the event given outbreak, instead assuring that there are “very sophisticated plans to make sure it’s a safe and healthy environment.”
Both the elected officials and medical professionals at Thursday’s news conference urged Floridians to take precautions to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Floridians should wash their hands, wear masks in indoor public spaces and avoid large gatherings.
Birx also asked any person who has attended an event with a lot of people to get tested. The message was a direct plea to young people, who may be asymptomatic but can spread the disease to older Floridians.
”We all have a critical role to play in the next few weeks,” Birx said.
Times staff writer Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report.