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Florida partisan divide on coronavirus over shelter-in-place

California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Ohio, Oregon, Nevada and Pennsylvania have announced shelter-in-place orders or bans on non-essential businesses.

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TALLAHASSEE — On a conference call Sunday evening, lawmakers pressed Gov. Ron DeSantis’ staff and agency heads on whether the governor would be issuing a shelter-in-place order to mitigate risk of their constituents contracting COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

“When are we actually doing a shelter-in-place order?” asked Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, “Is that being discussed? “

Sen. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, noted that many of her constituents in South Florida, a COVID-19 hotspot, are asking for a shelter in place order.

Jared Moskowitz, the director of emergency management and a former state representative from South Florida, said DeSantis is analyzing what other states have done and is “looking at all the different options.”

Those options include limiting open business to “essential businesses,” instituting curfews and lastly, issuing a shelter-in-place order.

Moskowitz added that “anyone who wants to voluntarily shelter in place, they are more than willing to do so.”

The Democrats’ questions come after Agriculture Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried, the lone statewide Democrat, called for a “stay-at-home” order, closing all non-essential businesses for a reasonable time, after which time the situation could be reassessed.

In a late-night letter to the governor, she said she recognized the difficult choices he has had to make and “shutting down one of the nation’s largest states is a decision that will have an economic impact — but it is a decision that will save lives.”

California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Ohio, Oregon, Nevada and Pennsylvania have announced shelter-in-place orders or bans on non-essential businesses.

So have local municipalities in Florida.

On Sunday night, Broward County became the second county in Florida to order all non-essential businesses to close in order to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Like Miami-Dade’s Thursday order, Broward has a lengthy list of essential businesses exempted from the order, including healthcare providers, gas stations, banks and news outlets. It goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

DeSantis has been closing parts of the state in piecemeal. A Friday executive order closed beaches and businesses in Broward and Palm Beach counties, which applied to “all movie theaters, concert houses, auditoriums, playhouses, bowling alleys, arcades, gymnasiums, fitness studios and beaches.”

Moskowitz said DeSantis is looking at data every two or three hours, and is analyzing how sustainable a shelter-in-place order would be. Some of that data includes the death rate and hospital bed capacity, which he is using to decide when is the right time to make the decision.

Eskamani said she was encouraged by the “when, not if” language but noted that action is needed soon.

“Either we have a lot of people die or we do something about it,” she said. “Those are your two choices. People are asking for leadership right now.”

One industry on which a shelter in place order would have an outsized effect would be the hospitality industry, which has already been decimated. The Tampa Bay Times reported that of the more than 1.5 million people who work in the state’s restaurant and hotel industry, only 200,000 to 400,000 are still employed.

Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said DeSantis has been in touch with her “regularly” since the outbreak began to learn what’s happening to the hospitality industry.

She praised him for trying to “thread the needle” of keeping restaurants open — and keeping people employed — while keeping people safe.

“He has tried so hard,” she said on Friday, just a few hours before DeSantis barred patrons from all restaurants and bars. “We’re trying to keep restaurants open even if we just go to takeout and delivery, just so we have additional food supply going into the community.”

In her 25 years leading the association, Dover said she’s never seen the industry shut down like it has in the last two weeks. The closest comparison is after the 9/11 attacks. But even then, the industry quickly bounced back by convincing tourists to visit the state’s beaches, she said.

That strategy doesn’t work right now.

“We’re doing the opposite right now,” she said. “We’re telling people, ‘Get off the beaches.’”

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.

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