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Florida’s House Democrats demand stay-at-home orders, mandatory masks statewide

Orlando Rep. Val Demings, who is on Joe Biden’s shortlist for Vice President, was the only Democrat not to sign the letter.

WASHINGTON — Nearly all of Florida’s Democratic congressional delegation is calling for targeted stay-at-home orders and a statewide mask order as the state’s coronavirus death toll breaks records.

In a letter sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday and obtained by the Miami Herald, 12 of Florida’s 13 Democrats in the House of Representatives urged the governor “to finally take strong action to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in Florida.”

“We ask that you immediately impose a statewide mask order and stay-at-home orders recommended by public health officials in parts of the state where the outbreak is raging,” the letter said. “By failing to reopen our state in the safe, smart, and step-by-step manner that you promised, and by ignoring [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] gating criteria, our state may be forced into a statewide economic shutdown, either by your order or simply because Floridians and visitors do not feel safe.”

The letter is the latest — and most substantial — call from public officials to impose measures that would close parts of Florida’s economy to stop the spread of COVID-19. Miami-Dade County has rolled back portions of its reopening and implemented a mask order but Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has so far resisted calls for a stay-at-home order in the state’s largest coronavirus hotspot.

Miami Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala, the former Secretary of Health and Human Services who was the first member of Congress from Florida to call for a second stay-at-home order in response to rising case rates, drafted the letter. Orlando Rep. Val Demings, who is on Joe Biden’s shortlist for Vice President, was the only Democrat not to sign the letter.

“You’ve got to hit this virus with a hammer,” Shalala said in an interview, adding that the positive case rate must decline for at least 14 days before a stay-at-home order could be lifted. “Contact tracing isn’t enough when there’s community spread.”

As federal officials, members of Congress do not have the power to issue stay-at-home orders or mask mandates. Either the governor or local officials have the power to make that decision.

“By delaying steps like a statewide mask order and targeted stay-at-home orders, by even one more day, additional business closures and their devastating impacts on Florida’s economy and the livelihoods of our constituents may be necessary,” the letter said. “Further, a stay-at-home order should be accompanied by building up testing capacity, contact tracing, and other tools to prevent further spread and the need for future stay-at-home orders in the weeks and months ahead.”

DeSantis has not indicated he’s willing to put in place another stay-at-home order. A statewide order was issued on April 1 and lifted for most of the state on May 4, though Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties remained closed through mid-May.

During a call with Gimenez and doctors this week, experts described Miami-Dade’s COVID situation as “extremely grave,” placing the county in the “epicenter” of the COVID pandemic that previously ravaged New York and China. They urged the public to comply with county rules on businesses and public spaces, including requirements to wear masks.

Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease expert at Florida International University who advises Gimenez on the coronavirus pandemic, said Thursday, “It’s time to shut down.”

“It takes about 10 days to see the effect,” Marty said on a conference call with reporters this week. “It’s very hard to know exactly what’s happening with this incredible moving target, but there’s no question putting the lid down on this thing would put this under some level of control.”

But Marty added that a second shutdown will do little in the long term if mask-wearing isn’t enforced, testing isn’t expanded and contact tracing throughout the state doesn’t improve.

“We can’t make the same mistakes that we did the first time. We didn’t put in place all the tools we needed,” Marty said. “That includes the tools of popular public perception of the risk, that people will wear the mask properly and in the right way. We have to have in place the contact tracers. Anytime anybody’s positive, you should test everyone in their family immediately.”

And while many Republican elected officials have balked at the prospect of additional closures and are pushing for schools to reopen next month, Democrats are arguing that not issuing an order will cause more economic pain in the future.

“If we continue with the rate of infection we currently have in Florida, our economy will contract and shutter on its own, needlessly subjecting Floridians to both lost jobs and wages and preventable death and illness,” the letter said. “Gov. DeSantis, our window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Please act before it is too late.”

Miami Herald reporter Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.

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