Coronavirus in Florida: Gov. DeSantis rejects sheltering in place, calls it 'blunt instrument'

Jeffrey Schweers
USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau

As the number of known cases of coronavirus surged past the 1,200 mark Monday afternoon, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he will not be imposing a statewide shutdown of nonessential businesses or ordering Floridians to shelter in place.

Instead, he announced that all airline passengers coming to Florida from New York and New Jersey — but not car or rail passengers — will be ordered to self-quarantine for 14 days.

"Given our circumstances, it isn't advisable. It's a blunt instrument," DeSantis said of a stay-at-home order, in a surprise afternoon press briefing in his office at the Florida Capitol, to which a select number of reporters were invited to attend.

An hour later, the Department of Health posted that 1,227 people had tested positive for the coronavirus, 80 of them from out of state, and there were 18 deaths related to COVID-19.

"It's not clear to me how a massive shutdown would even work," DeSantis added. "Look at New York City. It's like the party never ended. California beaches are full as ever."

DeSantis has been pressured from several fronts, including state lawmakers and several of the state's largest newspapers, to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order or lockdown of nonessential businesses. But he worried that a shelter-in-place order would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs needlessly, saying the virus was "not impacting every corner of the state."

He also said some of those more draconian restrictions wouldn't work on smaller counties that have seen no cases or only a handful: "A governor is not going to start imprisoning people just because they left their houses," he said.

Spotlight on Tallahassee:

The coronavirus has spread to 47 of 67 counties, and about half the cases are in the heavily populated counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, which also depend heavily on international travel and trade and have large senior populations.

The local governments there have already imposed strict restrictions on restaurants, bars, nightclubs and nonessential business, some of which have been enforced by executive orders from DeSantis.

The governor said he would work with those and any other larger metropolitan counties on additional mitigation measures.

"Bottom line, I'll work with all metro areas," DeSantis said. If municipal and county governments come together and work out an agreement, he said, "...I'll be there to work with you."

Those counties also have a lot of flights to New York, which has over 20,000 cases and is on lockdown. New York City alone has 100 deaths caused by COVID19. More than 190 flights a day are coming from New York and New Jersey to Florida, DeSantis said, adding that some of those passengers no doubt are carrying the coronavirus.

"While we are trying to stop the coronavirus in Florida ... people are coming from New York City," DeSantis said. 

At an earlier news conference Monday morning at The Villages, a seniors-only community spread out over three counties, DeSantis said he was still weighing his options.

The suddenly-announced news conference came after a 2 p.m. telephone call with Vice President Mike Pence and the "nation's governors" about COVID-19, according to a daily schedule released by the Governor's Office.

"We've already done a lot of statewide mitigation," DeSantis later told reporters, including shutting down bars, nightclubs and making restaurants provide only takeout service. At the afternoon press teleconference, DeSantis went through the many measures taken since state officials grasped the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak.

Mary Kay Woods celebrates the 89th birthday of her mother, Jean Hamilton, a resident of the Carrick Glen nursing home in Mt. Juliet.

He has shut down visitations to nursing homes and required stringent screening of nursing home staff, and he shut down visits to prisons.

Also, he ordered a statewide shutdown of bars and nightclubs, and ordered restaurants to cancel dining-in service and provide takeout only.

He's already issued nonessential business closures for the bigger counties that are responsible for the bulk of coronavirus cases: Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach. They've shut down gyms, movie theaters, bowling alleys and other nonessential business.

Ohio, New York and California are among the states that have ordered nonessential business to shut down.

Essential businesses, according to the Department of Homeland Security, includes supermarkets and grocery stores, big box hardware stores, pharmacies, physicians offices and other health care facilities, daycare centers, gas stations and convenience stores, veterinary clinics and pet shops, farmers markets, banks, post offices and businesses that support essential businesses. 

There will always be those who go to house parties when the bars close and anchor off of sandbars when the beaches close, DeSantis added, calling them "a class of people that are just selfish."

Police tape blocks access to St. George Island's popular beaches.

"You need to cool it, and let's get through this," DeSantis admonished. 

He and other state officials have stressed the importance of maximizing social distancing and self-isolation. The Department of Environmental Protection tried to keep the state's parks open by cutting back hours and asking visitors to limit their groups to no more than 10, but that didn't work out. A decision was made to close the parks until further notice.

"Unfortunately, this has not resulted in the reductions needed to best protect public health and safety as Florida continues to mitigate the spread of COVID-19," the DEP said in a news release. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a morning news briefing in Tallahassee with Jared Moskowitz, director of the state Division of Emergency Management, and Maj. Gen. James Eifert, the state adjutant general.

For the Big Bend area, that includes Alfred B. Maclay Gardens, Lake Jackson Mounds, Lake Talquin State Park, Wakulla Springs State Park, Natural Bridge Battlefield, San Marcos de Apalache, Bald Point, Tate's Hell, Torreya State Park, the John Gorrie Museum, Florida Caverns State Park, and Dr. Julius G. Bruce St. George Island State Park.

The governor has pushed to identify hospital beds across the state in case there is a surge of patients who require hospitalization.

Across the state, there are 18,131 available hospital beds, DeSantis said, along with 1,700 ICU beds. About a third of hospitals have 50% or more capacity to care for COVID-19 patients, he said.

Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management Jared Moskowitz speaks during a press conference regarding COVID-19 held at the State Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee Sunday, March 15, 2020.

Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz said during a conference call with lawmakers Sunday evening that the state has ordered 7 million masks, but will only ration them out to health care facilities to “fill the gaps” after hospitals, urgent care centers and counties make their own orders.

During that same Sunday night conference call with the governor's department heads, several Democrats grilled them, relaying constituents’ concerns from how to protect and isolate the homeless to the number of lagging test results.

One point of contention – whether the state will issue a shut-down or shelter-in-place order – was brought up a few times. Moskowitz said that decision would be up to the governor. 

Eskamani, a Democratic state representative from Orlando

Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando tweeted after that call ended: "We were told @GovRonDeSantis is "analyzing his options" & if we were to do it there would likely be 48 hours to prepare. We will keep asking & will keep you posted."

In a phone interview Monday, she said that Republican colleagues who are concerned about the economic impact should put public health first: "If you want to solve the economic crisis, solve the public health crisis," she said.

The biggest concern she's hearing from constituents is that they can't find a place to get tested and that is raising the insecurity level.

"There is no trust in the health care infrastructure because people can't get tested," Eskamani said. 

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, another Orlando Democrat, tweeted that Surgeon General Scott Rivkees couldn't even predict a best or worst case scenario of possible COVID-19 cases in Florida. "We're just bracing for the worst," Rivkees had told the lawmakers.

"If NY and CA can make estimates, why can't Florida?" Smith asked.

Contact Schweers at On Twitter: @jeffschweers

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