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Coronavirus cases, and closings, swell in Florida as death reported at assisted-living facility

Florida is now tracking 216 coronavirus cases. The governor on Tuesday placed restrictions on bars and restaurants as the disease continues to upend life in previously incomprehensible ways.
Bartender Matthew Keyes makes beverages for patrons at the Red Star Rock Bar in the Ybor City neighborhood in Tampa on Sunday. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
Bartender Matthew Keyes makes beverages for patrons at the Red Star Rock Bar in the Ybor City neighborhood in Tampa on Sunday. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

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TALLAHASSEE — A 77-year-old man at a Broward County assisted-living facility who had coronavirus has died, state officials announced Tuesday, and now test results are pending for two other people who died at the same location.

News of the positive test came as health leaders reported the number of coronavirus cases in Florida rose to 216 from 160 the night before. That includes residents diagnosed and staying in other states as well as visitors tested and isolated here. Seven Floridians have died, including a person in Manatee County whose death was announced late Tuesday as the first in the Tampa Bay area.

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Tuesday followed an increasingly familiar pattern of life contracting in Florida while the caseload, and collective worry, expands. Gov. Ron DeSantis issued his strongest mandates yet, ordering the closure of some bars and heavy restrictions on restaurants — incomprehensible only a month ago.

“Just roll back three weeks ago,” the governor said at an afternoon news conference, recalling when coronavirus was a distant concern for most Floridians. Now it’s a pandemic that has seized life in America. “Just think how it's escalated and how concerned some people are,” DeSantis said.

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State officials have worried most about nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, blocking nearly all visitors to such places in an attempt to keep out the disease, COVID-19. The epicenter of one of America’s first outbreaks of coronavirus is a nursing home in Washington state connected to at least 30 deaths, according to the health department there.

Florida health officials learned of the coronavirus case in Broward on Monday night, according to Surgeon General Scott Rivkees. The Department of Health deployed a team of staffers to the facility to evaluate the other residents and talked to officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Miami Herald reported the home is Atria Willow Wood in Fort Lauderdale and that the state is awaiting coronavirus tests on two additional residents of the facility who died.

Rivkees provided few details about the investigation other than to say there are 218 people at the facility and anyone who died is being looked at.

Florida has a higher share of residents in their 70s, 80s or older than any other state in America, making it especially vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus. Doctors say elderly people, and those with chronic health problems, are most at-risk of developing severe symptoms.

"The eye of this storm is disproportionately focused on our most vulnerable,” said Mary Mayhew, secretary of the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, on Monday, specifically referencing the “elderly and medically frail.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, left, looks on while Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, right, speaks about coronavirus in Tampa on March 2. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Health officials in Florida this week started reporting more data on coronavirus cases, and the reports make clear why officials are concerned. Nearly half of the known patients are 60 or older, an age bracket that includes people who experts say should exercise heightened caution.

Related: Tampa Bay bars had to close today. Will they open again?

The number of coronavirus cases tracked by Florida rose by 56 cases Tuesday. Among the new patients were two Hillsborough County men, ages 23 and 30. Health officials reported it was not yet clear if either had traveled to places with outbreaks of coronavirus.

The biggest share of known cases in Florida is tied to Broward County — 55 patients, or 25 percent. Miami-Dade is connected to another 44 cases, including one resident isolated outside of Florida, according to the Department of Health.

In Tampa Bay, Hillsborough has nine cases, Pinellas has four and Pasco has two. Hillsborough reported conducting 62 tests, including 21 awaiting a result; Pinellas had 144 tests including 106 awaiting a result; and Pasco had 37 tests including 16 awaiting a result. Hernando County had 16 tests, up from just four Tuesday morning, all awaiting results.

Testing in Florida has increased as private labs and hospitals develop and obtain equipment, supplementing the work of local health departments and state labs. A lack of early testing — because of short supply and strict criteria — has meant that the United States does not have a full understanding of the prevalence of the disease. DeSantis said Tuesday that mitigation like shutting down public gatherings has had to come before officials can even determine a baseline.

"You're doing it not really based on a lot of data, that's just the reality that we find ourselves in," the governor said.

Some people might not seek testing if they suffer only minor symptoms, DeSantis said, but “nobody knows” to what level such patients are responsible for spreading the disease.

Starting at 5 p.m. Tuesday, bars and nightclubs in Florida were to be closed for the next 30 days, DeSantis said, though his office later clarified that businesses also selling food could continue to offer dining menus while ending alcohol sales. The order applies to bars that make more than 50 percent of their revenue from alcohol sales. Staffers from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation are supposed to enforce the mandate, but the governor did not say whether owners who do not follow the rules will face fines or other penalties.

The state is ordering restaurants to halve their capacity during the same period while separating customers by at least six feet and screening employees to make sure they are not sick. The governor encouraged Floridians to use take-out and delivery services.

Patrons are seen outside Flanagan's Irish Pub on St. Patrick's Day Tuesday, March 17, 2020 in Dunedin. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Tuesday that starting at 5 p.m. bars and nightclubs will be closed for the next 30 days. However, the governor’s office clarified that bars that also sell food will be allowed to remain open and only sell food for that period. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

Following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the governor said he recommended no groups of more than 10 people at Florida beaches but declined to close them entirely.

Related: Coronavirus: Here’s which Tampa Bay venues, museums are closed, and for how long

Florida officials expect the case total here to continue rising.

State Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz said Tuesday he has asked the federal government for 5,000 ventilators and ordered another 1,500 from private companies. Ventilators are machines to help the sickest patients breathe.

As of now, the Florida Department of Health has 50, Moskowitz said. Private hospitals hold more, including more than 100 at Tampa General Hospital, where officials believe they are equipped for a surge in patients.

Ventilator shortages are a top concern of officials in New York, alarmed by reports of hospitals overloaded in Italy, where more than 2,500 people have died.

Moskowitz said the state is additionally ordering millions of masks and hot meals to prepare.

“We're running 24-hour operations now at the warehouse," he said. "You're talking about moving 10,000 masks in one direction and 10,000 masks in another direction.”

His department plans to move field hospitals around the state, including stationing one closer to The Villages, a sprawling retirement community in central Florida.

Moskowitz has asked the federal government for “floating hospitals,” too, Navy ships with hundreds of beds that could be stationed near Florida’s ports.

Times/Herald staff writers Samantha J. Gross and Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.

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