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Florida’s better off in COVID-19 fight than it was in April, DeSantis says

He also urged Floridians to wear masks while in public, although he and his staff don't always do that.

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis held a rare Saturday news conference to reassure Floridians about rising cases of COVID-19 in the state, saying that the “vast majority” of new cases are from young people who don’t have symptoms of the disease.

“The disease burden is not as significant as it was in March and April,” he said. “Very important to point out. We’re in a much better position than we were in March or April.”

He pointed to low hospitalization rates, increased testing and the median age of a person with COVID-19, which fell to 37 last week. Early in the pandemic, he noted, only people with symptoms could be tested.

“A case now is a lot different in terms of what it would mean in terms of a case in March,” he said.

DeSantis held the news conference on another record day of COVID-19 cases in Florida. The state added 4,049 cases on Saturday, bringing the overall total to 93,797 total infections since the first recorded case in March.

Related: Florida logs another 4,000-plus day as state approaches 94,000 coronavirus infections

He also said his surgeon general was reissuing the state’s public health advisory urging people to obey social distancing and to wear masks while indoors. He blamed news reports from early in the pandemic for confusing people about the necessity of wearing a mask.

Health officials initially thought masks would not be effective at preventing spread. Since then, officials have strongly urged the public to wear masks. On Friday, the Florida Medical Association urged local officials to adopt requirements that residents wear masks while in out public.

“I think there’s been a lot of mixed messaging from the public’s perspective,” DeSantis said.

But DeSantis himself often doesn’t wear a mask while in public. At Saturday’s news conference, neither he nor most members of his staff wore a mask.

When asked why his own staff weren’t wearing masks on Saturday, DeSantis said they were all obeying social distancing in the room. While some were standing about six feet apart, some weren’t, and they didn’t obey social distancing before and after the news conference. His staff rarely wears masks during his news conferences in the Capitol.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor instituted a mask order for residents on Friday, but DeSantis has resisted issuing his own statewide order. On Saturday, he said he didn’t know how it could be enforced.

“I think statewide penalties would be problematic for a whole host of reasons,” he said. “I think we’ve just got to trust people, give them opportunity to do good things, make good decisions. I think that tends to work better.”

The state has tested 1.56 million people since March, which has been sharply increasing in recent weeks. That rise in testing is one major reason for the increase in cases, DeSantis has said.

But many experts disagree. The positivity rate of tests in Florida are on the rise. The World Health Organization has said that in countries that have conducted extensive testing for COVID-19, the rate of positive cases should remain at 5 percent or lower for at least 14 days before loosening social distancing requirements. Over the last 24 hours in Florida, 12.3 percent of the new tests were positive.

Despite the unmistakable upward trajectory of leading indicators of COVID-19′s toll, DeSantis’ outlook remains bullish. He hasn’t, at least publicly, reconsidered his decision to reopen Florida in phases that eased restrictions he put in place on April 1 when he issued a confusing stay-at-home order.

Against the advice of many public health experts, but in keeping with the aims of President Donald Trump, a key ally, DeSantis aggressively pushed to reopen Florida. He began reopening on May 4, allowing restaurants and businesses to open at 25 percent capacity. Barbershops and salons reopened May 11. Gyms reopened May 18. Then, DeSantis announced that bars, theaters, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys could open on June 5. Last week, he helped ensure that the Republican National Convention would be held in Jacksonville in late August.

Yet doubts persist that members of the public are taking the necessary precautions as businesses reopen. Videos and photos of crowded bars brimming with patrons not practicing anything resembling social distancing soon cluttered Facebook and Twitter feeds. By early last week, six downtown bars in St. Petersburg announced they were closing because employees had tested positive. Similar closures were announced across the state.

All the while, cases mounted. Since the reopening began May 4, Florida’s case climbed higher and higher. Florida saw 819 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the first day of reopening, May 4, which was only 20 percent of what was announced Saturday.

DeSantis remains resolute. On Tuesday, he said “we’re not rolling back,” when asked about the rising cases. To shut down again would bring too much harm, he said.

“You have to have society function. You have to be able to have a cohesive society. That’s the best way to be able to deal with the impacts of the virus,” DeSantis said. “To suppress a lot of working age people at this point I don’t think would be very effective.”

Three days later, DeSantis again defended his approach by downplaying the rise in cases. He asserted that hospitalizations remain low and the median age of cases continues to trend down. Last week, the median age was 37. He said many of those people are asymptomatic.

Related: Gov. DeSantis defends rising coronvirus numbers, says trends remain positive

“A new case is just a positive test. It doesn’t mean somebody’s sick,” DeSantis said. “The number of cases is not necessarily something that’s going to tell you what the burden of the disease is.”

Throughout the crisis, DeSantis has stated that coronavirus poses no threat to young people.

“This particular pandemic is one where I don’t think nationwide, there’s been a single fatality under 25,” DeSantis said during an April 9 meeting to discuss reopening Florida schools. “For whatever reason, it just doesn’t seem to threaten kids.”

At the time he said that, Florida hadn’t yet reported any deaths of COVID-19 patients under the age of 25, but several Americans in that age group have been killed by the virus.

Without acknowledging that he had misspoken, DeSantis then asserted more clearly that no one under 25 in Florida had died.

Since then, three people statewide under 24 have died from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus. But on Saturday, a new milestone was reached.

A 17-year-old boy in Pasco County died, the state’s first fatality for someone under 18.

DeSantis didn’t acknowledge the death Saturday. Instead, he continued with his message that young people aren’t at risk.

“In those younger groups” who have tested positive, DeSantis said, “it’s almost always asymptomatic.”

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