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TALLAHASSEE — Bars and restaurants in Florida will stay open and Floridians will vote in Tuesday’s election while state officials evaluate sweeping new federal guidelines designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday.
DeSantis said officials were still reviewing an announcement by President Donald Trump about 90 minutes earlier that strongly encouraged the public to avoid gatherings of groups of more than 10 people for the next 15 days.
Trump also said that areas with “community spread," schools, bars, restaurants and other gathering spots should close. Major cities including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have already ordered bars and restaurants closed. St. Petersburg is ordering its bars to close at 9 p.m.
DeSantis said his administration was “internalizing” the guidelines but would likely issue basic instructions for restaurants and leave it up to municipalities to enact stronger measures. He said he did not want severe restrictions to backfire.
“The fact of the matter is, we can succeed at social distancing up until the point where the public decides they’ve had enough of it,” he said.
DeSantis said for the first time Saturday that there was evidence in Florida of “community spread," indicating the virus will be much more difficult to contain. He closed off visitation to all of the state’s nursing homes, assisted living facilities and similar sites with vulnerable populations on Saturday.
The virus causes flu-like symptoms but is far deadlier than the flu among older people and those with underlying health conditions.
Although other states, such as Kentucky, Georgia and Louisiana, have postponed their upcoming primaries, Florida is proceeding with its contests on Tuesday, said Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who oversees the elections system.
“Florida is proceeding with tomorrow’s election,” said. “We are confident that voters in Florida can safely and securely go to the polls and cast their ballot.”
Earlier Monday, Ohio’s governor recommended moving Tuesday’s election to June. Kentucky officials moved their election, set for May, to June as well.
“At the end of the day, we’re dealing with this in a thoughtful way,” DeSantis said. “But we’re not going to panic."
DeSantis said in most places, there will not be crowds, since people are only voting in one race. Nearly 2 million ballots have been cast already, Lee said.
“When you go and cancel that, the signal that that sends is that somehow we’re paralyzed,” he said. "I don’t think that’s the case.”
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On a call with governors on Monday, Trump encouraged states to seek out ventilators and other life-saving equipment on their own, rather than relying on the federal government.
DeSantis defended the president, saying state officials were already trying to buy equipment directly from manufacturers, rather than going through the federal government. The state has already purchased 2 million needles, for example, officials said.
“What he was saying is sensible,” DeSantis said.
Trump also warned the U.S. could be facing a recession, and that the outbreak could last until July or August. DeSantis announced he was activating $50 million worth of a state loan program to help small businesses. Business with between two and 100 employees an immediate $50,000 loan with zero interest.
Florida health officials Monday afternoon reported 19 new people infected with COVID-19, bringing the number the state is tracking to 155. Broward County has the most, with 38 people infected.
State Surgeon General Scott Rivkees said the state has also hired 100 additional epidemiologists to combat the pandemic.
To combat the virus, DeSantis reiterated that people should keep their distances from each other and avoid large gatherings. He said he was happy that cities and counties were canceling Tuesday’s St. Patrick’s Day parades.
“Now’s the time to stay home," DeSantis said. "Fire up a Guinness in your own house. No problem with that. You’re not going to get any arguments from me.”
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