Florida lagged behind dozens of states on coronavirus restrictions

Despite a large elderly population that is more vulnerable to the virus, the state has been slower than many others to restrict businesses.
The first state to close all dining rooms was Ohio last Sunday. Florida waited until Friday afternoon.
The first state to close all dining rooms was Ohio last Sunday. Florida waited until Friday afternoon. [ NEIL BEDI | Times ]
Published March 21, 2020|Updated March 22, 2020

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As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases ballooned over the last week, states across the country put aggressive restrictions on businesses designed to slow the virus’ spread.

Florida has lagged behind dozens of them, a Tampa Bay Times analysis has found.

Gov. Ron DeSantis was part of an early wave of state executives to order the closure of bars and nightclubs Tuesday, bringing the revelry to a halt on St. Patrick’s Day.

But he was slower than at least 35 other governors to suspend in-person dining at restaurants and behind at least 22 in closing gyms and fitness studios.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference on Thursday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference on Thursday. [ AILEEN PERILLA | AP ]

DeSantis took both steps Friday afternoon.

As of Saturday, DeSantis had not taken the more extreme step of closing movie theaters and bowling alleys, as had governors in Arizona, Colorado and Ohio.

Governors in four of the six largest states — New York, California, Pennsylvania and Illinois — had gone as far as to issue statewide directives closing all non-essential businesses and telling residents to stay home.

Only Florida and Texas had not.

Some of the states that moved more aggressively than Florida had fewer positive tests for the virus.

And no other state has a higher percentage of residents aged 70 or older.

The elderly are far more likely to have a serious or possibly deadly reaction to the virus than younger people, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a press conference Saturday, DeSantis described efforts to increase testing but no new restrictions.

Asked why he didn’t impose the same restrictions as other large states, DeSantis said he didn’t trust the most dire forecasts, referencing California’s projection that half its population could be infected in the next eight weeks. “I wasn’t sure that was something I’ve bought into,” he said.

“There's a lot of this that is really driven by assumption,” he added.

DeSantis’ office did not return calls or an email seeking comment for this report.

In recent days, a growing number of public health experts have urged Florida’s leaders to move faster. They say minimizing contact among people is key to slowing the virus’ transmission and point out that large-scale social restrictions have helped to blunt previous pandemics.

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Waiting even a few days to take preventative steps could have serious consequences, said Robyn Gershon, a clinical professor of epidemiology at New York University’s School of Global Public Health.

“Every hour can make a difference,” Gershon said.

Some local governments have taken action on their own. Miami-Dade County, for example, ordered all non-essential retail and commercial businesses to close. And some businesses across the state have shut down voluntarily.

To see how Florida’s response compared to other states’, Times reporters examined executive orders, press releases and news articles from across the country and constructed a timeline of how state governments have responded.

The analysis showed that Florida was among the first 27 states to close its public schools. It also limited visitors to nursing homes and assisted living facilities in accordance with federal guidance.

When it came to restricting businesses, however, Florida was less aggressive than many other states.

Most of the other states that closed restaurant dining rooms had identified fewer than 55 cases when they took action. Ohio became the first state to shut down dine-in service at restaurants Sunday evening when it had only identified around three dozen positive tests. Florida waited until it had more than 520 confirmed cases.

At the Friday press conference, DeSantis said he demurred on closing restaurant dining rooms earlier in the week for economic reasons. Instead, he limited capacity to 50 percent to keep patrons safe.

“The thought was that maybe if they had a little business, they could stay afloat,” he said.

But the policy was impossible to police, DeSantis said.

The governor also said he wanted to avoid more draconian measures that the public might ignore.

Separately, Florida came under fire for allowing its beaches to remain open during spring break.

Gershon said people elsewhere in the country were “horrified” to see video footage of young adults crowding Florida’s beaches on national newscasts last week. Young people can transmit the virus without showing symptoms. A new federal report shows they may be more at risk than previously thought.

People visit Clearwater Beach on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, at sunset where city officials have ordered all its public beaches to close for at least two weeks beginning at 6 a.m. on March 23 to help promote social distancing and limit the spread of coronavirus.
People visit Clearwater Beach on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, at sunset where city officials have ordered all its public beaches to close for at least two weeks beginning at 6 a.m. on March 23 to help promote social distancing and limit the spread of coronavirus. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

DeSantis had said local governments should decide what to do. Several counties took swift action to close their shorelines, including Pinellas and Miami-Dade.

Meanwhile, the governor in nearby Alabama made the call herself, closing her state’s beaches effective 5 p.m. Thursday.

The decisions to shutter businesses and beaches may have been more fraught in Florida than in other states. Tourism and hospitality are among Florida’s largest industries, and many of the state’s top elected officials are vocal opponents of government regulations.

“It’s an economic issue,” said Jay Wolfson, a public health and policy expert who is on the faculties at the University of South Florida and Stetson Law School. “It’s a healthcare issue. It’s a political issue.”

There were also psychological consequences to consider, Wolfson said.

“If everything suddenly shut down, would there be panic?” he asked.

Florida Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Edie Ousley praised DeSantis’ leadership. She said she expects to see more executive orders in the coming days.

DeSantis did take more aggressive action in Broward and Palm Beach counties Friday, where a large number of COVID-19 cases have been reported. He closed theaters, concert venues, bowling alleys, fitness studios and beaches

But some experts say now is the time for Florida’s leaders to deploy statewide measures.

“We see the problem,” said Tracy Zontek, an associate professor of public health at the University of Tampa. “It’s obvious and clear to us. We need to be more aggressive and more decisive.”

Mark Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health told reporters on Friday that widespread transmission across Florida is likely and that “more stringent measures are needed.”

Agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried
Agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried [ STEVE CANNON | AP ]

Late Friday, state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried called on DeSantis to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, closing all non-essential businesses.

“This difficult decision will save lives,” Fried said.

Times/Herald Tallahassee reporter Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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