As COVID-19 hospitalizations in Florida surged past 12,000 this week — far exceeding a record already shattered over the weekend — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was fed up.
Not with those spreading misinformation about vaccines or refusing to take protective measures. DeSantis, a Republican, instead railed against reporters for creating “hysteria” about rising hospitalizations and accused President Biden of facilitating the virus by not reducing immigration through the southern border.
Florida is the epicenter of a summer coronavirus spike fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant, reporting a fifth of all new U.S. infections and current hospitalizations. New cases and admissions have surpassed last summer’s Sun Belt surge. Florida is center stage of a dangerous phase of the pandemic where a new strain spreads more rapidly in a fully reopened society, attacking young and middle-aged adults and filling up hospital beds faster than ever.
“When Florida was one of the only places to open, the country used Florida as a way to return to normalcy and we allowed it,” said Elena Cyrus, an epidemiologist at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine. “We fed into the false sense of security and confidence.”
Florida also illustrates a new dynamic in the pandemic now that vaccines are widely available: Some Republican leaders have decided new surges are tolerable and do not require a robust response to quell. Some, including DeSantis, are treating a return of mask mandates and shutdowns as the greater threat.
“We can either have a free society or we can have a biomedical security state and I can tell you, Florida, we’re a free state,” DeSantis said at a Wednesday news conference. “People are going to be free to choose to make their own decisions about themselves, about their families, about their kids’ education, about putting food on the table.”
DeSantis, running for reelection next year, has dug into an approach that rejects restrictions that disrupt a tourism-heavy economy and treats public health measures as individual choices. In public appearances since cases and hospitalizations began skyrocketing in July, DeSantis has repeatedly condemned mandates and shutdowns. He has described the ongoing surge as an expected seasonal increase.
DeSantis also has the power to overturn local restrictions, frustrating some county and city officials who say he has hamstrung their response. DeSantis previously issued orders barring localities from fining people and businesses who violated COVID rules.
“It is not the role of any level of government — local, state, or federal — to micromanage individuals’ decisions or fine people for declining to wear a face covering,” DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said in an email.
DeSantis’s sole executive order in response to the summer surge threatens to withhold funding for schools that require students to wear masks. DeSantis, widely viewed as a 2024 presidential contender, has emerged in recent days as one of Biden’s highest-profile GOP adversaries on the coronavirus. On Tuesday, Biden noted DeSantis and Gov. Greg Abbott, R-Texas, saying their decisions on COVID have “not been good for their constituents.”
DeSantis eagerly pushed back.
“Why don’t you get this border secure?” he said Wednesday. “Until you do that, I don’t want to hear a blip about COVID from you.” (The Washington Post Fact Checker found no evidence to support DeSantis’s claim that Biden’s immigration policies are to blame for the surge.)
While conservative activists have cheered DeSantis for staying on course, detractors say he’s abdicating responsibility during crisis.
“The problem is the governor,” said Melissa Schumann, the owner of a bar in Orlando where sales have been slipping as a surge grows. “He could go out and do his speeches from vaccination sites … He could lead by example and wear a mask, and make a mask mandate.”
DeSantis’s posture fits into a broader picture of governors grappling with skyrocketing coronavirus cases, and their struggles have erupted increasingly into view. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., said this week he regrets signing a bill blocking local mask mandates, while a video of Gov. Phil Murphy, D-N.J., telling anti-vaccine hecklers, “You’ve lost your minds,” went viral.
Abbott recently moved to block local vaccine mandates in his state, even as Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, required masks for all students in his. The divide is not always partisan; Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, R, recently declared, “It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks.”
While his critics point to skyrocketing hospitalizations, DeSantis redirects to a significantly lower death toll this summer. Average daily deaths peaked around 180 in last summer’s surge; they are now climbing past 70, the most of any state. Lower mortality, a trend seen nationwide, is attributable in part to an 80 percent vaccination rate among Florida’s senior citizens, the age group most likely to die of COVID-19.
While Republicans often cast opposition to COVID restrictions as a way to protect the economy, resurgences of the virus are also damaging, and preliminary private-sector data suggests the delta surge could throw a spanner in the works of a still-fragile Florida economy.
The Florida restaurant industry roared back this spring as the state reopened, blowing past its prepandemic levels of traffic even as restaurants nationwide have yet to recover, according to data from OpenTable. But as delta variant cases rose in July, the state’s restaurant boom returned to earth. Restaurant traffic has fallen to levels last seen in May, when cases were falling across the state.
Florida’s labor market, too, looked to be recovering faster than the rest of the country. By early July employers had posted 43 percent more job openings on the job site Indeed than they had before the pandemic, about eight percentage points above the national rate, as businesses raced to rehire to meet resurgent demand. But those gains reversed by month’s end, falling two percentage points and severing the state’s long streak of job-posting growth.
While DeSantis hasn’t attacked vaccine skeptics like other Republicans have, he has promoted vaccines, saying they “are saving lives,” and his administration’s push to prioritize senior citizens. He convened a gathering Wednesday of hospital executives, who emphasized the vast majority of their new patients are unvaccinated. DeSantis also used that event to highlight ways where hospitalizations haven’t been as bad as last summer, including a lower share of ICU beds in use and parts of the state where admissions are lower.
Although Florida hasn’t approached a point where it needs field hospitals or to ration care, hospital leaders say they’re taking measures to prevent crises by converting spaces such as cafeterias and auditoriums to add additional beds and by delaying elective surgeries. Many expect the current surge to last at least several more weeks because new infections continue to rise rapidly.
“There will be hospitals that may exhaust all of their resources and ability to further expand their capacity, which may result in patients having to be transported to other hospitals in the region,” said Mary Mayhew, chief executive of the Florida Hospital Association.
Hospitals around Orlando and Jacksonville have been reporting some of the worst conditions in the state, including at least 10 that say they’ve hit all-time highs in admissions.
The University of Florida’s Jacksonville hospitals are among those who have crossed that point with 233 COVID-19 patients admitted as of Thursday — compared to the 125 January peak — and intensive care unit beds exhausted. Officials have been scrambling to expand ICU beds and to tap enough nurses to staff them, while looking at models showing a patient admissions spike over the next two weeks.
“It’s frightening and it’s frustrating. When we had the waves we had before, we thought we were tight and we thought we were pushed pretty hard,” said David Caro, an emergency physician at the hospital. “Now getting into this situation, we have to bring all those resources we brought to bear before and are trying to come up with new ways to make care proceed forward. It’s scary.”
Hospitals in South Florida, which isn’t as hard hit, are still struggling. Boca Raton Regional Hospital treated about 95 COVID patients on Wednesday, a significant jump from five hospitalized in mid-June and its all-time peak of 78 patients.
“We are admitting patients way faster than we can discharge them from the hospital,” said Samer Fahmy, the hospital’s chief medical officer. “We anticipated that we may get a bit of a surge, but we did not anticipate that it would be this rapid and to this degree. This is worse than we expected.”
Hospitals are also seeing a small but growing number of pediatric patients as a new school year looms and the governor feuds with school boards over mask mandates.
Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Broward County treated 12 COVID inpatients earlier this week, the most to date, said Lussette Dantinor, director of emergency services. Administrators are working to expand space if hospitalizations rise.
Whether to mandate masks for children is “a tough debate,” Dantinor said. But she noted that for her own 9-year-old child, “I feel right now — due to what we’re seeing, I think that would be best.”
The school board in Broward County, where her hospital is located, approved a student mask mandate on July 28 — two days before DeSantis signed an order that would withhold funding from schools that make face coverings compulsory.
The school system initially seemed poised to back down, but on Wednesday, with a handful of Florida school systems defying DeSantis’s order, a spokesperson said Broward district officials were “awaiting further guidance before rendering a decision on the mask mandate.”
Shannon Beckham, a Jacksonville Beach parent, credited the Duval County school board for taking on DeSantis’s order by approving a mask mandate that allows parents to opt their children out.
“I feel for them, because it’s not an easy decision to make, and they’ll probably get threats. And I think there’s also a fear of our governor.” Beckham said. “It’s not an easy choice for them, but I think you should always err on the side of the choice that’s not going to kill people.”
Outside of schools, city and county officials are complaining they cannot take aggressive measures to prevent the spread of the virus because of moves by DeSantis and the Republican-controlled state legislature to strip them of emergency public health powers.
Broward County Mayor Steve Geller said officials would have probably imposed an indoor mask mandate at private establishments had it not been for the governor’s veto power. Instead they mandated masks only at county buildings. “While we are doing our best to protect our employees, we are not protecting the general public very well,” Geller said.
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, who declared a state of emergency last week with daily new infections reaching all-time highs, said Republicans have also constrained his response. He mandated vaccinations for county employees and strongly urged people to wear masks indoors, but Demings said a full mask mandate and the ability to penalize those who break it are valuable tools Republicans stripped from him.
“I want the ability to be very nimble,” Demings said in an interview last week. “Sometimes in government you have to have the leverage of enforcement in order to gain compliance and because the governor has taken away the ability of locals to have the leverage to gain compliance, I want that leverage back.”
Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said DeSantis should not be micromanaging what local officials can do to battle the virus.
“What’s different with this surge is that last year we were able to respond, but now we can’t,” McKinlay said. “I’m getting constituents asking me to do something, I’m getting parents calling me afraid to send their kids to school next week, and there’s nothing I can do. We can try to set up more testing locations, but other than that, I tell them, ‘I’m sorry, you’ll have to call the governor’s office.'”
But Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner, a Democrat who supports DeSantis and served on his reopening committee, said the governor has taken the right balance.
“Ultimately, this is a function of personal responsibility, in that we have a personal choice to get vaccinated, or wear a mask, or maintain our personal focus on social distancing,” Kerner wrote in an email. “I’m not confident that increased government regulation would achieve a different result.”
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Rozsa reported from West Palm Beach, Fla. The Washington Post’s Andrew Van Dam and Jacqueline Dupree contributed reporting.