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TALLAHASSEE — As Gov. Ron DeSantis continues to resist calls to shut down Florida to prevent the spread of coronavirus, he’s been in close contact with a powerful constituency: big business.
Some of the the state’s largest business groups, which donate millions to Republican candidates each year, have been lobbying DeSantis and his staff to keep the state open.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce have spoken frequently with the governor and his staff, urging him not to take drastic measures that might shut down the state’s economy. The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association has been asking for ways to help their industries stay afloat.
Their message: don’t let the cure be worse than the disease.
“We’re recommending that the governor continue to do what he’s doing,” said Florida Chamber President and CEO Mark Wilson. “I don’t think the data says we need to do a statewide shutdown.”
In refusing to shut down the state, like some public health experts recommend, DeSantis is taking a gamble that many governors have not been willing to make.
More than a dozen other governors from both parties have imposed limits on businesses or ordered residents to shelter in place in an effort to slow the disease’s spread.
DeSantis has refused to follow suit, deferring to cities and counties about how best to protect their residents, and has been unswayed by pleas by public health officials, mayors and Democratic members of Congress. Joe Biden, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, urged DeSantis on Wednesday to take “science-based action.”
Public health experts say that a three-week limit on public movement is required to stop the spread of the virus, and they point to a statistical model that shows that Florida may have only one week to act before hospitals become overwhelmed.
“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 in a call with reporters on Monday.
DeSantis’ cautious approach happens to be the same one advocated by Florida’s business associations.
The Associated Industries of Florida, which represents many of Florida’s largest corporations, has not been advocating for a statewide shutdown, President and CEO Tom Feeney said. But if it does happen, he has asked it to be “thoughtful” and adhere to the Department of Homeland Security’s recommendations on what constitutes those businesses allowed to remain open.
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“Some states and locals have done enormous unintended damage to essential supply chains and critical infrastructure due to lack of rational aforethought in their edicts,” Feeney wrote in an email to the Times/Herald.
Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, has praised DeSantis for trying to “thread the needle” between keeping businesses open and keeping people safe. One of her top priorities has been asking DeSantis to consider restaurants and hotels “essential” in the event of a shutdown.
“I think it’s great that he’s still allowing communities to do what’s in the best interest of their communities,” Dover said.
Their comments are shared by hedge fund and private equity titans who have leaned on President Donald J. Trump to get people back to work soon, fearing that that the longer people keep their distance from each other, the longer the economy will suffer.
Trump has since said he wants the economy back in business by Easter. DeSantis, who owes his victory in the 2018 Republican primary to Trump’s endorsement, has not endorsed that idea but is already questioning repealing other intervention measures, such as keeping kids out of school.
In advocating to avoid a statewide shutdown, the Chamber’s Wilson pointed to the same statistics that DeSantis did this week: Most of Florida’s 67 counties have no coronavirus cases or just a handful.
“The health and safety of Floridians has to be job No. 1,” Wilson said. “I think the question is, do you close down the world’s 17th largest economy when almost 20 counties don’t even have this in their county?”
Wilson concedes that the state has not done nearly enough tests, and the state likely won’t have a better picture of the virus for two to three weeks.
“Look, somebody’s going to be right and somebody’s going to be wrong, and the reality is nobody knows in advance,” Wilson said.
One of the top reasons health officials have pushed for a shutdown is that the health care system could be crushed by the number of coronavirus patients, which would also cripple the state’s economy.
And some lawmakers fear that that message is not being heard.
“I think there’s this fantasy that if they do half-measures and don’t take strong measures immediately, that somehow this will dissipate,” said state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami. ““Our fortunes are already tied.”
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said DeSantis was under “a tremendous amount of pressure," but the idea he’s making decisions based on politics — and not public health — was “irresponsible.”
“He’s hearing from a lot of self-interested actors right now who are acting out of self-preservation,” Lee said. “With every executive order, there’s another industry being impacted. Those people are pretty aggressive and pretty vocal, and I think he’s done a pretty good job of ignoring all that.”
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