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Photos of thousands of spring-break revelers packed onto Florida’s beaches brought unwanted national attention and finger-pointing to the Sunshine State earlier this month amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Public health specialists fretted about what would happen as party-goers returned to their homes across the country. Critics questioned Gov. Ron DeSantis about why he didn’t do more to control the crowds flouting social distancing guidelines.
This week, as Florida’s coronavirus numbers skyrocketed, DeSantis turned the pointed finger at other states for fueling the growing public health menace.
In recent days, he’s singled out travelers from the New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Louisiana, saying they risk spreading the virus as Florida works to contain the pandemic within its borders. Florida’s cases are still rapidly rising, with the count at nearly 3,000 as of Friday afternoon.
“After all the hard work, we don’t want it to now get seeded as people flee the hot zone,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis issued executive orders earlier this week requiring a 14-day quarantine for travelers newly arriving from the New York area or who had done so in the past three weeks. New York is currently the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak.
Travelers would have to tell authorities about any contact they’ve had with anyone in Florida so officials could also track those individuals, he said. He had members of the National Guard stationed at some airports to try to catch these travelers.
On Friday, DeSantis announced he was expanding that effort by having highway troopers stop drivers from Louisiana at different checkpoints and telling them to also self-isolate for 14 days.
Panhandle communities, he said, were trying to keep their coronavirus case numbers low; the measures are meant to protect Florida communities, DeSantis said.
Public health experts applaud DeSantis’ efforts to address the spread of the coronavirus from areas with high incidences of cases, even though they’ve wondered about how well the measures can be enforced and whether they should have been more universal.
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Optically, the measures do something else: They set up New York, and other states, as foils to Florida and its efforts to contain the coronavirus internally.
The orders came as DeSantis was criticized for resisting pleas from healthcare workers and others to issue a temporary statewide stay-at-home order. One of the reasons he hasn’t, DeSantis said, is that there were issues with New York’s own stay-at-home order.
“You started having people flood out of New York City, including taking hundreds of flights from the New York City area, direct flights to the state of Florida. That obviously is a big problem,” DeSantis told reporters earlier this week.
DeSantis’ spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferré, emphasized New York as a threat to Florida by tweeting that it is “ground zero” for the coronavirus in the northeast and that it is “reckless that they travel and unwittingly or not carry the virus to Florida.”
The White House Coronavirus Task Force has recommended that travelers from the New York City area do place themselves in a 14-day quarantine, but absent any federal action, it’s been left to the states to pass their own restrictions.
Matt Dallek, a political historian at George Washington University, said DeSantis’ initial focus on the New York City area appeared to be in part political, especially given that there’s been community spread of the coronavirus in other parts of the U.S., as well.
Dallek said DeSantis’ order may very well be grounded in sensible measures to restrict travel, but added that it also helps set up a narrative of: “It’s not the good people of Florida who are spreading this.”
Dallek pointed to some of the nationwide criticism over the crowded beaches during spring break, saying the recent orders help DeSantis show he’s cracking down on some of those sorts of out-of-towners.
“It’s a way for a governor to deflect blame and to claim, 1) That he’s taking action and, 2) That the plague is coming from outside the community,” Dallek said.
DeSantis is not the only governor making similar decisions as officials across the country grapple with making their own rules amid a pandemic that is unprecedented in recent history.
On Thursday, Texas also announced an executive order for air travelers from New York and New Orleans to self-quarantine for two weeks. Alaska and Hawaii are requiring all travelers coming into their states to self-quarantine.
States are also finding themselves in a strange circumstance of vying against each other and the federal government for medical resources to handle the epidemic. Florida’s Division of Emergency Management confirmed Friday that gowns, gloves, goggles and masks that Florida had gotten from private vendors were sometimes being redirected by the federal government to help New York City.
It should not be surprising if more states begin to place travel restrictions on travelers from other areas, including those from Florida, said Jay Wolfson, a professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health.
“It is called reciprocity, but it is also protecting the interests of the citizens of respective states from renegade or even unintentional spreaders,” Wolfson said.
DeSantis on Friday said the state this week has registered 3,400 visitors from New York who would need to follow the 14-day self-quarantine. He said the state has seen a significant reduction in flights from New York City since his orders were issued.
Sally Alrabaa, an infectious disease specialist at the University of South Florida, said she was glad when she heard DeSantis’ plan to have New Yorkers self-quarantine.
“Honestly, at this time, it’s a real war. Anything that breaks transmission should be done as much as possible,” Alrabaa said. She said people shouldn’t be moving between states anyway at this point.
As of Friday afternoon, Florida said nearly 200 of its roughly 3,000 coronavirus cases are linked to travel from New York, New Jersey or Connecticut. That includes a couple dozen in the Tampa Bay area.
Alrabaa warned that Florida is not “even near what we call the peak” of the spread of the virus. She said Floridians need to brace themselves and do everything possible to stymie the spread of the disease.
Wolfson said he thinks DeSantis’ orders will deter some people from coming to Florida, but said there needs to be consideration about how well they can be enforced and about how travelers can be self-isolated when they do arrive.
“Requiring that people isolate in place, without their families and friends, is difficult when they have no place except family and friends,” Wolfson said.
Wolfson also suggested that DeSantis broaden his orders to include all travelers coming into Florida.
“The virus does not care where people live in the country,” Wolfson said.
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