Editorial: A call for Gov. DeSantis to take bold action to halt the spread of coronavirus

Editorial Board

Our governor is keeping too much distance from “social distancing”.

Florida, the state famous for retirees, where 20% of residents are at least 65 years old, has embarrassed itself across the nation with images of drunken young people in swimsuits crowding beaches during a global pandemic.

Worse, Florida is endangering itself — for, any of us who is showing no symptoms of coronavirus disease may be unwittingly carrying it and transmitting it to people who are more vulnerable. And who may die.

Governor Ron DeSantis speaks about Florida's response to the spread of coronavirus during a press conference at the Florida Department of Health in Naples on Friday, March 6, 2020.

Short of maximum testing and tracking, as South Korea did so admirably — not possible in the United States, given our unconscionably slow start and lagging testing capacity — our only real chance of halting a wildfire of infection is through an extreme program of social distancing.

More:Coronavirus in Florida: Gov. DeSantis bucking advice of health professionals, local and state lawmakers

The governors of California, New York, Illinois, Connecticut and New Jersey recognize this. They have issued stay-at-home orders for as long as public health officials deem necessary. Their residents are barred from leaving their houses except to work at crucial businesses such as grocery stores and utilities or to shop for essentials or take solitary walks.

On Tuesday, Collier County commissioners agreed to seek authority from DeSantis to further shut down non-essential businesses here, mimicking the actions taken in Dade-Broward and other counties.

The move would be done in conjunction with Lee County, assuming commissioners there agree, would entail gathering more data to justify the move and would require at least one other public meeting at which the shutdown vote would occur. In other words, it won’t happen quickly, if it happens at all. That puts the ball, in the short term, in DeSantis’s hands.

“Folks needed to be jolted,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said on Sunday. “It's no time to panic, but just the same, it's no time for business as usual.”

Somebody jolt Gov. DeSantis. Apparently afraid to disrupt business — most conspicuously, the business of Spring Break — DeSantis has been far too slow to convey the sense of emergency this moment requires.

On Friday, DeSantis did order closures in Palm Beach and Broward counties — modeled after, but not going as far as, moves by Miami-Dade. He closed our beaches, gyms, movie theaters, auditoriums, bowling alleys and dining rooms of restaurants that seat more than 10 people. Miami-Dade has gone so far as to close “non-essential businesses,” but Palm Beach County has rejected that step.

It’s not enough.

Of the nation’s six largest states, only Florida and Texas had not issued statewide directives by Saturday closing all non-essential businesses and ordering people to stay home.

Asked on Saturday why he was announcing no new restrictions, DeSantis said he didn’t trust the direst forecasts. He referred to California’s projection that more than half the people in the most populous state could be infected in the next eight weeks.

“I wasn’t sure that was something I’ve bought into,” DeSantis said.

The Republican governor doesn’t “buy into” the calculations of public health experts? He doesn’t “buy into” the quickly escalating curve of new test-positives? Is the health of 21.3 million Floridians — and all their contacts beyond state borders — to be dependent on this one man’s gut?

It’s simple math. Until March 10, there were just 15 confirmed cases of coronavirus disease in the state. Ten days later, there were 563. Two days later, we were over 1,000. It’s a very troubling trend: the number is doubling roughly every two days. (True, the total is zooming in part because we’re testing more people; but for every person who gets a test, we know that multiples more are not getting tested.)

In Europe, which is in danger of facing an Italy-like surge of cases, epidemiologists are finding that if infections are unchecked, the number doubles approximately every five days, with infected individuals capable of passing the virus to an average of about 2.5 people.

If that rate is our fate, Florida reaches 10 million infections — 50% of the population — in about 10 weeks. California’s projection isn’t so far-fetched.

We don’t want to be Italy, which has become the pandemic’s new epicenter with almost 64,000 cases and more than 6,000 deaths as of Monday. The numbers are so appalling because, although Italy has some of the tightest restrictions in the world, they were put in place piecemeal or too late.

“If Italy’s experience shows anything,” reports The New York Times from Rome, “it is that measures to isolate affected areas and limit the movement of the broader population need to be taken early, put in place with absolute clarity, then strictly enforced.”

Florida is not doing any one of these nearly enough.

A Chicago epidemiologist perhaps put it best, speaking after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced that state’s stay-at-home order that started Saturday. The 2 ½-week order might seem “extreme,” said Dr. Emily Landon — but that’s what’s necessary to halt a streaking disease that may not seem much more, at first, than a bit of flu, but which is 10 times more deadly and can kill in a matter of days.

If we don’t radically separate from one another, she said, “The healthy and optimistic among us will doom the vulnerable.”

Of course, it is hard to order businesses to close. Yes, it’s a pain to tell golfers to stay off the greens. To tell boaters to stay ashore. To order beaches closed in every coastal county. Nobody wants to see Florida’s economy come to a halt. But the sooner we clamp down on normal life — and clamp down hard — the sooner we can slow the infection rate and keep more people healthy. There is no chance of an economic recovery, or any sort of normal life, as long as infections rage on.

We urge the governor to waste no time in declaring the same sort of stay-at-home restrictions that New Yorkers and New Jerseyans are under. So far, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is the only statewide official to endorse such a move.

“This difficult decision will save lives,” she said Friday. She is right.

Governor, the time for action is rushing by. Quit dithering. Shut this state down.

This editorial was written by the USA Today Network-Florida opinion leaders and localized for Naples and Fort Myers audiences.