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Kriseman, south Florida mayors urge DeSantis to stop pandemic spread

Five mayors, including St. Petersburg’s Rick Kriseman, asked Gov. Ron DeSantis to impose a statewide mask mandate and take other measures as the virus resurges in Florida ahead of the holidays.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman participated in a Wednesday Zoom call in which he and other mayors implored Gov. Ron DeSantis to take statewide action to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman participated in a Wednesday Zoom call in which he and other mayors implored Gov. Ron DeSantis to take statewide action to curb the spread of the coronavirus. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Nov. 18, 2020
Updated Nov. 18, 2020

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman warned that if Gov. Ron DeSantis doesn’t take statewide action to curb the resurgence in Florida of the coronavirus, 50,000 Floridians could die unnecessarily before a vaccine is widely available.

Kriseman’s dire warning came during a Zoom call Wednesday organized by Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber that included other mayors from south Florida: Michael Ryan of Sunrise, Crystal Wagar of Miami Shores Village and Carlos Hernandez of Hialeah. They requested that DeSantis enact four measures to slow the virus’ spread, saying a failure to do so would lead to catastrophe.

The four recommended measures are:

• Implement a statewide mask mandate.

• Allow municipalities to enforce local measures like mask orders and social distancing requirements, permit them to return to virtual public meetings and afford them budgetary flexibility to meet revenue shortfalls.

• Restore state-funded testing facilities to full capacity.

• Improve contact tracing, in part by adopting the Exposure Notification System phone application built by Google and Apple that Gelber said has proven effective in other states.

The measures echo what is being done in other states, including some led by Republican governors where positivity rates are rising and hospital beds are filling up. Iowa, North Dakota, Utah and Ohio, all Republican-run, recently imposed mask mandates. New York, whose governor is a Democrat, took the more extreme measure of imposing a curfew on restaurants and bars.

Their plea underscored the fault lines between local governments who favor reimposing mitigation measures and a governor who favors a laissez-faire approach that leaves it up to individuals to follow recommended safety precautions. DeSantis continues to follow the lead of President Donald Trump, who has downplayed the severity of the virus even as it grips the country in a third wave as winter takes hold.

“It’s become pretty clear that what Florida is doing right now isn’t working,” said Gelber, who warned a major uptick in hospitalizations was coming. “It’s unmistakably clear that Florida’s approach to managing this pandemic is failing horribly.”

It’s unclear if the mayors’ call to action will yield a shift in policy from DeSantis. In March, Kriseman and other Tampa Bay leaders consistently called on DeSantis to take a statewide approach to safer-at-home orders, decrying a “patchwork” of locally-implemented safer-at-home orders. DeSantis ultimately implemented a statewide order after municipalities across the state, including in the Tampa Bay area, imposed their own. Kriseman said Wednesday’s coalition was meant to reapply that pressure on DeSantis.

“Our hope is that he’ll listen to us, and he’ll see what is being done in states all around the country, and not just in blue states, and he will be willing to change his mind and recognize it isn’t working here in Florida,” Kriseman said.

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Iowa’s Gov. Kim Reynolds capitulated to pressure from mayors and others when imposing a mask mandate this week, according to the New York Times.

Yet it was DeSantis who yanked control of the pandemic from local leaders in September when he elevated the state to phase three of his reopening plan, effectively ending all statewide virus restrictions. That same order precluded municipalities from enforcing mask and distancing orders against individuals, rendering many local measures toothless. DeSantis did, however, allow cities and counties to enforce local measures against businesses.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to emails, a call and a text message seeking comment.

Gelber also invited Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Orlando Mayer Buddy Dyer, neither of whom could attend because of scheduling conflicts. Castor, who was scheduled to address the National League of Cities on Tampa’s Lift-Up-Local program — which helped small businesses by loosening regulations on zoning and closed streets to allow restaurants in some neighborhoods to set up tables outside — said she would consider issuing executive orders on her own authority if the pandemic worsened and the state didn’t act. She called that scenario “a last resort.”

The mayors stressed that implementing these four measures now would cause less disruption than letting the crisis get worse, which could force more draconian restrictions down the road, especially ahead of the holidays, which will draw returning college students and tourists from all over the country.

“We’re trying to ring a bell right now,” said Gelber, who sent a letter to the governor echoing his thoughts from the Zoom call.

Hernandez said time will tell if DeSantis’ approach is right or wrong: “In a couple months, he’s going to look pretty bad,” he said,” and nobody wants to look bad.”

But the group said they remained optimistic.

“Across the country, governors are changing their minds,” Gelber said. “The hallmark of a good leader is to be informed by conditions and not be afraid to change their mind about something.”

Times staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report.

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