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Coronavirus Florida: Potential cluster surfaces in Broward at assisted-living facility

Gov. Ron DeSantis announces two deaths and five other cases are tied to a Fort Lauderdale long-term care facility.
A health care worker prepares to collect a sample to test for COVID-19 at a drive-through testing site Friday, March 20, 2020, at the Doris Ison Health Center in Miami. [WILFREDO LEE | AP]

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Correction: This story published just before 9 p.m. and said a Pasco County death had been recorded tied to coronavirus. The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office about then shared a statement from the Florida Department of Health in Pasco County that said “there was an error in data input for the Florida Department of Health reporting system in Pasco County which has been corrected. Currently there are no deaths related to COVID-19 in Pasco County. We apologize for the error and will continue to keep you informed.” This story has been updated.

Two residents of the same assisted-living facility in Fort Lauderdale died with coronavirus infections and another five people at the home have tested positive for the disease, a visibly frustrated Gov. Ron Desantis announced Friday.

Six more tests are pending for individuals connected to that long-term care home, Atria Willow Wood — igniting fears that Florida could have an outbreak among some of its most vulnerable residents, similar to that which has overtaken an elder care facility near Seattle, already linked to 35 deaths.

The update came just hours after the governor tightened the state’s response to the pandemic by ordering all restaurants to move to takeout or delivery only, all gyms to close, and all hospitals to suspend elective surgeries in an effort to preserve capacity during the emergency.

DeSantis had been reluctant so far to take such drastic actions, saying he did not want to bring life in Florida to a halt, falling behind other states where governors were pushing restrictive measures sooner. Friday he tried to make clear how hard doctors and nurses are working.

“This is the equivalent of the Navy Seals going to go to Abbottabad and getting Bin Laden,” he said.

Florida health officials are tracking 563 known cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, which can lead to severe respiratory infections. Ten Floridians have died. Two of Florida’s deaths have come in Broward County, home to Atria Willow Wood, both men, ages 77 and 92.

State health officials have sought to block the virus from entering long-term care facilities, banning nearly all visitors last week and asking operators to make sure employees were not sick. But the governor said those efforts faltered at the Fort Lauderdale home.

"Construction workers, staff and cooks who were ill were not screened, and were allowed to go work their jobs and mix with the residents unimpeded,” DeSantis said. “That is exactly what you are not supposed to do.”

Atria Willow Wood has 96 residents on the assisted-living side of its property, and another 123 on the independent side, according to the governor. Of the confirmed patients, DeSantis said, five come from the assisted-living area and two from the independent. He did not release information about who was infected.

An official with Atria Senior Living wrote to relatives of residents at the home, according to the Miami Herald, saying five infected residents are in the hospital and administrators “continue to take all necessary precautions as advised by health officials.”

The state has directed law enforcement officials to help monitor Atria Willow Wood and has asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to embed an infection control specialist there as well, DeSantis said. The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration has also sent staff to work there.

Sighing, the governor put the onus on operators of long-term care facilities.

“You need to take responsibility to protect your residents,” he said. “You need to take action to protect your people.”

Two coronavirus-related deaths in Florida have been linked to the Atria Willow Wood facility in Fort Lauderdale. [Miami Herald]

The message was in line with the official response to coronavirus taken in Florida until Friday, one that has emphasized personal responsibility and carried a lighter touch than places like California, which this week moved to advise all residents to shelter in place — not leaving their homes except for certain necessary steps like grocery shopping.

DeSantis still has not supported such a sweeping restriction, but on Friday he went further than before, closing all restaurants in the state to in-house dining. The announcement came in the form of an executive order sent to reporters at 2:12 p.m., to “take immediate effect.” It was an expansion of the governor’s rule from earlier in the week, which closed any bars that did not serve food and allowed restaurants to continue operating at half-capacity.

When the order came out, many restaurant workers — serving the last trickle of customers in thin lunch crowds — immediately lost their jobs.

The goal, DeSantis said, had been to allow owners to keep earning money while offering families a place to go amid a time of great anxiety. Some restaurants heeded the advice, he said, but others did not.

“We don't have time to police that so we're going to takeout and delivery only,” DeSantis said, calling it “somewhat unfortunate.”

“It's going to be hard for restaurants to survive in this environment,” he added, but the state has eased restrictions to allow some to sell alcohol to-go with food, which the governor hopes will help. “We've got to do what is safe for everybody,” he said.

The Department of Business and Professional Regulation is supposed to enforce the new rules.

From left Columbia Restaurant bartenders, Dave Cunca and Savana Schilling do extra cleaning as they prepare for an extended shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. "Luckily we've had an extraordinary six months where business was really good, so if we were smart we put some money away to help soften the blow," said Shilling. "However, most people probably didn't," said Cunca. [BOYZELL HOSEY | BOYZELL HOSEY | Times]

At least 34 states suspended in-person dining or closed restaurants entirely before Friday, a Tampa Bay Times analysis of public records and news reports shows. Five others announced restrictions Friday. At least two dozen states, including New York, Texas and California, had already called for closures of gyms, fitness studios and similar businesses. Others have taken the additional steps of closing shopping malls, bowling alleys and movie theaters.

DeSantis has said he worries people will tire of restrictions and not follow the orders. Asked a couple of days ago why he had not yet ordered the closure of daycare programs, he said, “I don’t want to shut every aspect of life down.”

On Friday, he added: “I don't want to tell anyone what to do. That's my nature.”

But that front is chipping away. Earlier Friday, the governor worked with local authorities to expand closings in Broward and Palm Beach counties to include “all movie theaters, concert houses, auditoriums, playhouses, bowling alleys, arcades, gymnasiums, fitness studios and beaches,” similar to a step taken by officials in Miami-Dade a day before.

Those counties are the top three for coronavirus patients in the state, connected to a combined 293 cases.

Fourth on the list is Hillsborough County, which has seen 32 cases, a total that has more than doubled since Wednesday evening.

Elsewhere around Tampa Bay, Pinellas has reported 22 cases; Pasco seven; Hernando four; and Manatee 10. A South Pasadena condominium, Sun Island, said that a South Dakota man who recently died and was infected with coronavirus stayed in the complex’s Lexington Building earlier this month. People who were in contact with him have self-quarantined but have not reported getting sick, according to emails from the city and the complex’s management company.

As of late Friday, the state listed 6,277 people tested in Florida counties, including 1,095 pending for public health labs. Those numbers may not be comprehensive, officials have warned, as private hospitals and labs come online to help with checking potential coronavirus patients.

“The No. 1 thing that we need is just a lot more people to have been tested,” DeSantis said, adding that he believes knowing better how far the disease has spread will help minimize mass cancellations. The last two days he has referenced South Korea, which early on tested 10,000 people or more a day, as a place to emulate.

“The more you test, the less restrictive some of these things are going to need to be on society,” he said.

DeSantis gave the example of The Villages, Florida’s famously enormous community full of retirees where he said “tee sheets are filled” on the golf course, but people are sticking to one person per cart and not shaking hands or touching the flag stick at every hole.

“They’re not going to get sick if they follow those guidelines,” DeSantis said. “And I think that is a more sustainable model if people have the ability to be able to do some things in a safe way.”

Times/Herald staff writers Kathleen McGrory, Neil Bedi, Emily L. Mahoney, Helen Freund, Kathryn Varn, Thomas C. Tobin, Carol Marbin Miller and Bailey LeFever contributed to this report.

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