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Is there a doctor in the house? Those helping DeSantis reopen Florida want medical guidance.

Education leaders also predicted a widening achievement gap between lower-income students and their wealthier peers.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, left, puts on a lab coat alone with other local and state official to go on a tour where potential coronavirus cases will undergo testing at the Florida Department of Health Laboratory in Tampa, Florida on March 2, 2020.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, left, puts on a lab coat alone with other local and state official to go on a tour where potential coronavirus cases will undergo testing at the Florida Department of Health Laboratory in Tampa, Florida on March 2, 2020. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Apr. 22, 2020
Updated Apr. 22, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Those advising Gov. Ron DeSantis on reopening Florida are supposed to tell him by Friday about how it should be done safely.

But just two days away, members DeSantis tapped to do this are seeking more guidance, and they’re looking back to him and the Florida Department of Public Health he oversees to provide it.

On Wednesday, task force members said they needed advice from doctors — something their meetings have been missing so far this week — before they instruct businesses how they should operate when they reopen.

“What the very small business owner is looking for is, ‘Just tell me what I’ve got to do to do to open my doors,’” said state House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes. “'Do I have to wear a mask and gloves? Do my people have to wear a mask and gloves? And what is the maximum capacity within a square foot space?'”

So far, task force members have hardly touched proposing any safety precautions. They’ve had little input from state health officials since they started meeting on Monday.

DeSantis has given them a tight deadline to provide recommendations. The top task force is an executive committee that includes Oliva, top Republican lawmakers and executives from Disney, Publix and other large corporations, but no doctors. Three working groups, with other members, are focusing on certain areas, such as the restaurant and hospitality industry, education, and health care.

The discussions so far have been vague or, conversely, too specific. On Wednesday, for example, the CEO for Universal Orlando described how the theme park could use apps to control crowd sizes by telling visitors when it was their turn to wait in line for a ride. An executive for the PGA Tour noted how its professional golfers might all be required to stay in the same hotel and have their movements restricted when play resumes.

Oliva noted that there has been little talk about relevant guidance for small businesses.

“What this group needs to do ... is to listen to the medical professionals and have a clear understanding: This is the amount of feet that human beings need to be apart. This is the type of protective gear that human beings need to wear within this kind of space," Oliva said.

“If you meet those requirements, you’re open for business," he added. "If you don’t meet those requirements, you’re not allowed to open for business.”

Attorney General Ashley Moody said health officials need to be working with task force members to answer questions such as how businesses should report employees who fall ill from COVID-19.

What all seemed to agree on is that businesses wanted clear safety guidelines before they reopen.

“We need a set of very practical sort of rules of engagement and guidance for every business so we can start getting back up and running,” said John Couris, president and CEO of Tampa General Hospital.

In response, a Department of Health official said she would send the task force members some general guidelines Thursday morning, such as standing six feet apart and requiring employees wash their hands.

A task force with a dozen hospital officials might have offered some of that advice, but it was unable to meet by teleconference Wednesday because of technical problems. DeSantis said the problem might have been “intentional” and that the state was “looking into it.”

The task force led by state education commissioner Richard Corcoran on Wednesday offered a combination of aspirations, intentions and desires, along with some often gloomy predictions.

Education leaders predicted, for instance, a widening achievement gap between lower-income students and their wealthier peers. They also anticipated a decrease in university enrollment, as students with lesser means cannot afford to return and schools lose the budgetary strength to offer as much financial support.

The possibility of a canceled college football season could dampen revenue at big schools like the University of Florida, too, noted Board of Governors chairman Syd Kitson.

Corcoran signaled that tackling the disparities among the student groups will become the state’s top priority after ensuring everyone is healthy and safe.

He suggested that several steps will be necessary, including expanding access to computers and internet access, increasing the capacity of virtual schools for families that want it, and establishing a broader “hybrid” education model that allows parents to better tailor their children’s school needs to family demands.

Pinellas County superintendent Mike Grego, the only school district leader on the panel, said the school systems are exploring several ways to offer “robust” programs to help catch up children identified as having fallen behind. He expected a greater deal of customization of services for students, from academics to mental health, to help them find success.

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