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Coronavirus Florida: Tampa Bay’s caseload grows as South Florida shuts down businesses

Thursday brings the first infections publicly tied to St. Petersburg and Hernando.
A Coronavirus roadside screening checkpoint is seen at Bay Pines VA Hospital at Bay Pines VA, Monday, March 16.
A Coronavirus roadside screening checkpoint is seen at Bay Pines VA Hospital at Bay Pines VA, Monday, March 16. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Mar. 20, 2020
Updated Mar. 20, 2020

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While officials in South Florida planned Thursday to shut down even more businesses as part of a rapidly shifting response to coronavirus, St. Petersburg residents learned of the first infection with confirmed ties to their city.

The state’s known caseload ballooned to 432 as Gov. Ron DeSantis provided new insight into the severity of the disease, COVID-19, saying health workers knew of at least 90 infected people who required hospitalization. As of Thursday morning, he said, that was nearly a quarter of the cases tied to Florida. Nine Floridians have died, the latest a person from Duval County.

Related: Friday update: Florida governor orders all restaurants closed except for takeout, delivery service

Fifty-four cases are near Tampa Bay. Hernando County announced its first four positive tests Thursday and local leaders declared a state of emergency. In St. Petersburg, managers at the high-rise ONE St. Petersburg condominium alerted tenants the night before that a resident of the building had tested positive for the disease. Bayfront Health St. Petersburg confirmed that the downtown hospital had its first case of the virus, though it remains unclear whether that involves the same patient from the apartment complex.

Hospital officials said the person had been separated from others in an “infection isolation room only a small team of caregivers can access.”

Related: Friday update: 10th person dies as Florida’s coronavirus caseload rises above 500

Across the bay, leaders in Hillsborough County, which has the most cases in the region at 20, announced they were extending a state of emergency and further limiting public and private gatherings to 10 people or fewer, including at gyms and theaters but not restaurants. They said they hope to build drive-through testing sites at Raymond James Stadium and the Florida State Fairgrounds.

They shied away from broader measures, like a curfew, but left open the possibility for discussing stricter rules next week.

Pasco County’s case total rose to five and Manatee’s to nine.

Related: Friday update: DeSantis orders major shutdown of beaches, businesses in Broward, Palm Beach

In Pinellas (16 cases), officials argued over beaches, eventually deciding to shut them down. That measure drew tense debate, but was less than a sweeping pronouncement in Miami-Dade that non-essential businesses would close beginning Thursday night as part of an aggressive effort to contain the spread of the virus. Banks, grocery stores, laundromats and gas stations were among those that would stay open while other business owners locked their doors.

Appearing in Pembroke Pines after a morning news conference in Tallahassee, DeSantis said he intends to work with local officials to issue similar orders in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

“Southeast Florida is the epicenter of what we're fighting,” he said.

COVID-19 has not spread evenly through Florida, DeSantis has said, highlighting that a number of counties have reported no cases even as he bemoans the lack of testing that means doctors have little idea how entrenched the illness really is. He said Thursday that Florida has received between 4,000 and 5,000 needed swabs for tests but nowhere near the 500,000 officials ordered more than a week ago.

It’s not clear where the state made that order, but the governor said doctors also hope to get swabs from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“They don't necessarily have the best tracking system that they use, so it will show up hopefully on somebody's doorstep, either the (Emergency Operations Center) or somewhere in one of the hospitals, but that should be several thousand more,” DeSantis said.

Florida Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz has attempted to stock up quickly on equipment including masks and gowns for health care workers to avoid exposure to coronavirus, though DeSantis said “everyone really in the world is trying to procure this stuff."

"I'm having dreams about N95 masks,” he said.

President Donald Trump, long a DeSantis ally, rejected the idea Thursday that the federal government deserves blame for supply issues across the country.

"Governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work,” he said. “We’re not a shipping clerk."

DeSantis in the afternoon visited a planned drive-through testing site in Broward, but even there he said the focus will be on swabbing health care workers and people 65 or older who are showing clear symptoms of the disease. It’s a limited if critical group that brings officials no closer to understanding how many people without severe signs of COVID-19 might be spreading the virus. DeSantis said he wants more data to “make better policy decisions.”

"People are kind of flying blind because there haven’t been enough tests done,” he said. About 60 percent of the coronavirus cases tracked by Florida to date have included patients younger than 60.

The governor’s tone shifted somewhat Thursday, after repeated assurances that younger and healthier people might experience only minor or no symptoms upon contracting the illness. Reflecting recent evidence from abroad and growing sentiment in the medical community, DeSantis said, “What we’re starting to see is some of the younger folks, I mean it can knock them on their butt. ... You could be relatively healthy in your 20s and you could wind up in the hospital.”

The economy is among his top concerns as Florida stares down weeks of cancellations and a gutting of its all-important tourism industry. DeSantis has said people might lose their jobs “through no fault of their own” while business lags.

Three of Florida’s biggest counties, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Orange, have announced a suspension of evictions as society sputters. The governor said he is open to a statewide moratorium.

“I need to see what my authority would be and how it would work,” he said. “If something happens with their business and they get laid off, and then they can’t make the rent payment ... those are extraordinary circumstances.”

Times/Herald staff writers Josh Solomon, Barbara Behrendt, Anastasia Dawson, Samantha J. Gross and Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report.

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