Coronavirus in Florida latest: No lockdown, struggling industries, trapped travelers

Here’s what you need to know for Tuesday, March 24.
Shawn Toledo, 13, of Sarasota, center, his father Dexter Toledo, 46, right, walk through the main terminal at Tampa International Airport moments after arriving on a JetBlue flight a one-way flight from Newark, New Jersey, which arrived at 12:13 a.m., just minuts after an executive order issued by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis went into effect.
Shawn Toledo, 13, of Sarasota, center, his father Dexter Toledo, 46, right, walk through the main terminal at Tampa International Airport moments after arriving on a JetBlue flight a one-way flight from Newark, New Jersey, which arrived at 12:13 a.m., just minuts after an executive order issued by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis went into effect. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published March 24, 2020|Updated March 24, 2020

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Florida’s coronavirus caseload continued to spike Monday, with 220 new cases over 24 hours bringing the statewide total to 1,227 cases and 17 deaths. Fifteen of those new cases were in Hillsborough County, which now has 73 cases overall, the fourth most among Florida counties.

Later in the day, the first death in the Tampa Bay area was reported, a 67-year-old Pinellas County resident.

As of Tuesday morning, the United States had 46,450 cases and 593 deaths.

DeSantis holds back from lockdown, despite experts’ pleas

Even as cases surge, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday that he opposed a statewide stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order — despite public health experts’ assertions that such action is needed to prevent a major disaster that overwhelms hospitals.

“It is past time to intervene to slow transmission (in Florida),” said Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Though DeSantis has said he wants to rely on “good data” and suggested that low numbers of confirmed cases in many Florida counties mean there’s not a big problem here yet, Florida’s limited testing means the data he’s looking to may be inadequate and out of date.

Meanwhile, one model used by public health experts shows that the “point of no-return” for Florida to prevent hospital overload is March 30 — now less than a week away.

At least a dozen states have issued stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders or have closed all nonessential businesses. Florida’s sluggishness on doing so is part of a trend: The state has lagged behind dozens of others on coronavirus-related restrictions.

Local governments contemplate lockdowns

While DeSantis avoids a stay-at-home order, some local governments are considering implementing one. A shelter-in-place proposal spearheaded by Tampa Mayor Jane Castor was up for a vote at a meeting of Hillsborough County officials Monday, but the group elected to hold off on such an order. Castor has said she’s also considering a citywide order.

Later Monday, Castor’s office said she will proceed with citywide stay-at-home order.

Pinellas County officials could discuss a shelter-in-place order as early as Thursday, county commissioners said Monday.

“If we can flatten the curve now, we can get people back to normalcy faster rather than if we wait for a crisis," said commissioner Karen Seel, who unsuccessfully pushed for a voluntary shelter in place resolution last week. "I don’t want it out of control where people are dying and sick and passing it on. We need a methodical way to address this so we can save people.”

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St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman also released a statement in support of a stay-at-home order Monday.

Not sure what “shelter-in-place” means or how it works? We’ve got answers to those questions.

Governor orders quarantine for New York-area travelers

In an appearance Monday morning, DeSantis pointed to travelers fleeing New York, which has more than 20,000 coronavirus cases and is under a stay-at-home order, as evidence of why those orders don’t work. Hours later, he announced his most drastic move yet: Travelers who fly to Florida from New York, New Jersey or Connecticut will have to self-isolate for 14 days or else face a criminal penalty.

“I would reckon, given the outbreak there, that every single flight has somebody on it who is positive for COVID-19,” he said.

What’s next for Florida’s hospitality workers?

Some of Florida’s biggest industries are beginning to feel coronavirus’s wrath. Hotels are emptying, putting at financial risk the estimated 150,000-plus people who work in the hospitality sector in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. The U.S. Travel Association has predicted economic fallout six times what it was after the Sept. 11 attacks, and it’s projected that 40 percent of tourism workers will soon lose their jobs.

“There is no precedent,” said Visit St. Pete/Clearwater CEO Steven Hayes. “Whatever we have experienced, it’s not this."

Florida’s restaurant industry is also struggling, after DeSantis’ order last week that all restaurants go to take-out or delivery-only led to thousands of layoffs. On the Coronavirus in Florida podcast, host Allison Graves interviewed Times food critic Helen Freund about the tough road ahead for restaurants and businesses across the state.

Tampa Bay residents struggle to get home from abroad

A U.S. State Department travel warning issued last week urged U.S. citizens abroad to return immediately or prepare “to remain abroad for an indefinite period.” But for some travelers, that’s easier said than done.

Though it’s unclear how many Floridians might be stuck in other countries, Tampa Bay residents have reported their struggles to get out of Honduras, Peru, Ecuador, Austria, Nepal and elsewhere.

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