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As Florida coronavirus cases spike, Ron DeSantis says mask requirement won’t work

The state reported more than 8,900 new cases Friday.

TALLAHASSEE — Florida shattered its previous record for coronavirus cases Friday. That hasn’t changed Gov. Ron DeSantis’ mind when it comes to masks.

Although more than 8,900 new cases were reported Friday, and experts agree that masks have proven to greatly slow the spread of the disease, DeSantis reiterated during a Fort Myers news conference that he does not believe requiring masks would work.

“We’ve advised that’s something that could make an impact,” DeSantis said. “At the same time, to do police and put criminal penalties on that is something that probably would backfire.”

Several Florida counties, including Hillsborough, Pinellas and Miami-Dade — some of the hardest-hit by the recent spike — require masks indoors in public places. All three of those counties have subjected violators to fines.

The mandates have become controversial in Republican circles in recent weeks. In Leon County, for example, a recently passed mandate is being challenged in court by that county’s Republican Party chairman. And although the Trump administration has officially recommended mask wearing for months, it’s stopped short of requiring face coverings even at packed, indoor campaign events — including the upcoming Republican National Convention set for Jacksonville in August.

DeSantis’ comments came as the nation’s eyes turned to Florida and its growing outbreak. Before Friday, the previous record for reported cases, also set this week, was about 5,500.

Since cases began rising steadily in mid-June, DeSantis has cited numbers attributing the spike to younger Floridians, who are less likely to suffer the most serious health outcomes than older residents. He did so again Friday.

Earlier in the day, at a briefing from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci noted that any infection, regardless of the age of the infected, makes the community less safe.

“If you get infected, you will infect someone else,” Fauci said, noting the disease’s rate of reproduction is currently greater than one in areas with community spread. That means that each person who gets infected will, on average, infect more than one other person.

DeSantis made a similar point Friday. Echoing the opinion of health experts, he also said that the coronavirus does not affect all young people equally. Even those aged 15-44 can still suffer from risk factors such as obesity or compromised immune systems that can worsen health outcomes if they contract the virus. In Pinellas County, a 22-year-old died from the coronavirus, the state announced Friday.

Vice President Mike Pence, the leader of the White House task force and a political ally of DeSantis', said at Friday’s briefing in Washington, D.C. that he’s traveling to Florida next Thursday to get a feel for the situation on the ground.

DeSantis said that although cases are on the rise in his state, the percentage of positive tests has remained flat recently.

“Obviously, a lot of news saying, ‘a huge number of, quote, cases,‘” DeSantis said. “Really nothing has changed in the past week in terms of, we had a big test dump. Ten to 15 percent have been testing positive for really the last week.”

DeSantis noted that the percentage of positive cases has grown considerably since early June, when it was consistently under five percent.

At points during the news conference, DeSantis seemed to blame the spike on a lack of attention paid to the virus. Floridians took their collective eye off the ball in part because, he said, the news media covered it less amid national anti-racism protests.

“I would do press events in May, I would never be asked about coronavirus, it was about all these other things,” the governor falsely asserted.

Related: ‘Where we are.’ Florida’s window to act on virus growth is closing, experts say

At the same time, DeSantis seemed to back off from his claim from June 16 that the state would not roll back its reopening. Before the news conference, DeSantis’ administration announced it would halt the sale of alcohol at bars in an attempt to slow the spread. The governor characterized this as a “major action.”

Related: Florida suspends drinking at bars

Florida moved to Phase 2 of its reopening on June 5, which meant the reopening of bars, movie theaters and other indoor venues at 50 percent capacity. Around that time, thousands of Floridians also began regularly taking to the streets to protest racism and police brutality. Cases began precipitously increasing across the state around mid-June.

DeSantis said social factors had more to do with the recent surge in cases than businesses in the state re-opening.

That echoed a claim made by Pence earlier in the day.

“There will be a temptation for people to look at these Sunbelt states that have been reopening and putting people back to work and suggest that the reopening has to do with what we’re seeing in the last week or so,” Pence said. “But frankly, in the case of each of these states, they reopened, in some cases, almost two months ago.”

Still, Pence said that given the rising infection rates across the south, he would support measures announced by Texas officials on Friday to roll back that state’s reopening.

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