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South Florida mayors to DeSantis: We need more COVID help

While DeSantis touted the promise of high school football and minimized the COVID risk for children, mayors told him local families were scared about putting their kids back in the classroom.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, arrives for a roundtable discussion with Miami-Dade County mayors during the coronavirus pandemic,
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, arrives for a roundtable discussion with Miami-Dade County mayors during the coronavirus pandemic, [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
Published Jul. 14, 2020
Updated Jul. 15, 2020

MIAMI — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis came to Miami on Tuesday for a meeting with local mayors on COVID-19, and they didn’t want to hear a pep talk.

The bipartisan group of municipal leaders told the Republican governor he needed to better convey the urgency of the health crisis facing the Miami area. At a meeting where DeSantis touted the promise of high school football in the fall and minimized the COVID risk for children, mayors told him Miami-Dade families were scared about putting their kids back in the classroom.

The mayors also told DeSantis they needed better information from the state contact tracers on the sources of Miami-Dade’s runaway spread of COVID as cities and the county ponder another wave of business closures or restrictions on public spaces.

“We have to make a lot of decisions .... We need the ability to have as much actionable data as we can possibly have, so we can make intelligent decisions that we can justify to our residents and to our business owners,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said during the public discussion with DeSantis in the 29th-floor offices of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

“There is a significant amount of pressure, right now, for us to shut down at some level,” said Suarez, a Republican. “If things do not improve, quickly, over the next week or two, I think we’re going to be under a significant amount of pressure to do something like that.”

For the first time during the COVID crisis, DeSantis wore a mask while he spoke at a microphone during a media event. Miami-Dade’s emergency rules require masks in all indoor spaces, but DeSantis removed his before speaking a Miami press conference Monday.

On a day when Miami-Dade’s hospitalization report showed COVID patients exceeding intensive-care capacity for the first time and coronavirus ambulance calls surging, DeSantis told the mayors Miami-Dade had an “abundance” of hospital beds. He described Miami-Dade as getting hit the hardest by COVID and encouraged the county to do what’s needed to tackle the virus.

“You don’t have agree with me on everything, but you’re the leaders at this place in this time ... and people need to follow it,‘' DeSantis said. He thanked them for “the different perspective,” and concluded: “It’s important to take a stand now and turn this thing around.”

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, a Democrat, said too much encouraging talk from elected leaders sends the wrong message in a county that will plunge into a hospital crisis if the public doesn’t do a better job protecting itself from the virus.

Gelber suggested that the public was getting mixed messages and referred to the recent visit from Vice President Mike Pence in which he commended the progress Florida was making as cases soared.

“When people hear that. I think people will follow a path of least resistance,‘' Gelber said. “Some people will say... ‘one of my leaders just is saying I don’t have to, so I don’t think I do.’ "

Gelber acknowledged that the governor can disagree about issuing a mask mandate but urged him to at least send a strong and clear message about wearing them.

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“I think we need a sense of urgency in our community right now, a true sense of urgency, and I think really has to come from, from the president, from the governor,‘' he said. “We’re trying our best, but people will follow the messages they hear from the people that they believe in and they respect.”

Gimenez has already ordered a 10 p.m. curfew to try and cut down on the late-night socializing he’s blamed on the county’s surge in COVID cases. Last week he ordered restaurants to close their dining rooms, and casinos to close completely.

“The message that has to be from all of us is we need to wear our masks indoors and out. We need to keep social distancing,” Gimenez said from behind a black Office of the Mayor face mask. “We need to wash our hands. We need to keep our hands away from our face. We need to have plenty of disinfectant always around.”

Related: Florida mayor says DeSantis left him out of meeting

The media event was designed to broadcast unity among state and municipal leaders. But it got off to a rocky start when Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, uninvited but leading the county’s second-largest city, arrived at County Hall to join the event. The Republican was turned away at the Clark Center lobby, with a DeSantis staffer saying he couldn’t attend. Asked about Hernandez, DeSantis he wasn’t aware of the situation and would be happy to meet with him.

The sharpest exchange came after DeSantis asked mayors how their communities were feeling about reopening schools in the fall. In recent days, DeSantis has knocked down the idea of COVID making it impossible for schools to reopen because local governments already allow stores like Walmart and Home Depot to operate. When Gelber said a mandate for reopening schools conveys too much confidence about safety, DeSantis interrupted him.

“There is risk in everything,” he said. “What’s the level of risk for school-age children?... Fortunately, the risk is relatively low.”

Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert pointed out reopening classrooms involves a large number of adults, too, because the school system is Miami-Dade’s largest employer. “It’s cafeteria workers. And it’s bus drivers,” he said. “And it’s teachers. I hear you say minimal risk. This conversation would go a different direction if just one child contracts COVID-19 and dies.”

Later, asked by a reporter if he would allow Miami-Dade’s school system to keep all buildings closed in the fall, DeSantis didn’t answer directly but cautioned against ignoring the downsides of another period of mandated home learning.

“What about having football season, things like that? We’ve got a lot of young kids who this is their ticket to be able to go to college through athletics,‘' said DeSantis who played baseball through his college years. “Next, what happens to all those dreams and all those hopes, and all those aspirations? And that is something that’s majorly important to me. The growth and development of our of our school kids is majorly important to me.

“And just think about, like when I was in high school, if you would have just canceled my season in my year, that would have been big time devastating for me. And I think that’s probably true for a lot of people,‘' he said.

“We want to see opportunity for the students, and we want to see, obviously, with a parental choice for them to be able to exercise that for distance learning if they want. But I think we just have to give as many opportunities for kids as possible.”

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