With COVID-19 rocketing out of sight, South Florida’s government leaders are counting on minimal measures to bring it under control. But the threat of a return to lockdown is growing, and it could be only weeks away.
Shutting down is seen as a last resort, but a conceivable one. Until then, government officials are trusting in steps like curfews, party bans, mask laws and restricted dining to reverse the coronavirus’ climb.
Those type of actions have grown in recent days as the pandemic became more dire.
Broward County on Friday imposed a curfew from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., a step Miami-Dade County had taken earlier.
Broward also prohibited any gathering of more than 10 people, even in a private home, unless those people live there.
Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties all have ordered restaurants to eliminate late-night hours that have led to crowds and partying.
Miami-Dade County decided Thursday to send out more than 60 code inspectors and 100 police officers to ticket people for not wearing masks, among other violations. By Friday morning, the county had issued 35 fines and closed three businesses.
Those steps followed weeks of pleading with residents to do the sensible thing: wear masks and keep a distance from other people. Many people ignored the advice, however, and cases of COVID-19 have exploded, killing hundreds of people and packing hospitals with COVID-19 patients.
Health data released Friday showed 130 more deaths in Florida and 11,548 more people infected. Over a week, the state averaged 100 deaths per day, an unprecedented mark that outpaced other hot spots like California and Texas.
The numbers make the circumstances look tame when Florida first shut down in March and April, with 33,690 people diagnosed with the disease. On Friday, almost 10 times as many people — 327,241 — had been infected.
The question now is whether limited restrictions like masks and curfews can reverse the wave. Many people think not.
The state’s congressional Democrats insisted Friday that Gov. Ron DeSantis issue a statewide order telling people to wear masks in public and implement shutdowns in South Florida and other hot spots. The governor has said repeatedly that shutting down is unnecessary and could drive businesses under.
All three counties in South Florida agree that it’s not time for another lockdown — yet.
“We are sort of at a critical juncture,” said Miami Mayor Francis Suarez. “If things do not improve quickly, over the next week or two, we’re going to be under a significant amount of pressure to do something like that.”
Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner sees the situation differently in his county. He said residents and businesses have largely complied with orders on masks and social distancing. More restrictions are not necessary at this point, he said.
“We’re not seeing the violations that we used to see because our enforcement and our education is broad enough and our community is tight-knit enough that the moment that stared happening, the businesses got in line very quickly,” Kerner said.
And yet, the coronavirus crisis has grown rapidly in Palm Beach County, too. The county reported 650 new cases in data released Friday, pushing the total for the pandemic to 24,361. A total of 656 people have died.
Dr. Alina Alonso, Palm Beach County’s health department director, told county commissioners Tuesday that the county’s “positivity rate” — the percentage of tests that come back positive — stands above 12% and has hovered above 10% for four weeks.
“We need to get that down below 10%,” Alonso said. “We need to go way down where we were when we opened [from the first lockdown] at 4.9% and even below that.”
Although 20% to 30% of intensive care hospital beds remain open in Palm Beach County, some hospitals report that they are near capacity. Kerner said the county would not hesitate to lock down again if the situation became critical.
“There is never going to be a time where if things turn bad during this pandemic that we’re not prepared to go backwards,” Kerner said.
Broward County Mayor Dale Holness is putting the same faith in his county’s steps to crack down on risky behavior without another lockdown.
“Look, we’re not looking to arrest people. This is an emergency situation. When people’s lives are at risk, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to save their lives,” Holness said.
Among other steps, the county is restricting vacation homes that locals have rented for giant parties. The county also has increased the pressure on businesses to follow mask rules and enforce social distancing. Inspectors had issued 58 citations and 791 warnings as of Friday.
COVID-19 is spreading anyway. Broward County reported 1,347 new coronavirus cases Friday, bringing the pandemic total to 36,913. Five hundred people have died
Although the numbers are even worse in Miami-Dade County, Mayor Carlos Gimenez will not put a timeline on a lockdown.
“I’m not ready to say it’s a couple of days, a week, whatever,” Gimenez said. “This is a balancing act. Starting to shut down again could cause irreparable damage, irreparable harm.”
If Miami-Dade were to shut down everything at once, it would not be possible to see what measures work against the spreading disease, Gimenez said.
Closures would happen gradually, in reverse order from when businesses opened in mid-May, Gimenez said.
Likes others, Gimenez said the crush on hospitals will determine whether a shutdown is necessary. Miami-Dade County has the state’s most people hospitalized with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19, with 1,734.
Gimenez said data Thursday showed a 2% increase in hospitalizations over four days, which he called a “significantly less increase than we’ve seen before.”
“We still have capacity here in Miami-Dade County, although we are making preparations for having this surge continue,” Gimenez said.
Holness thinks South Florida can still avoid a shutdown.
“If we adhere to the emergency order, if we follow the CDC guidelines, we should be able to control this,” he said. “If we don’t, then there’s an issue. And we have to be mindful about shutting down.”
Jason Salemi, a maternal and child health epidemiologist at the University of South Florida, is optimistic, too.
Salemi said that aggressively following social distancing and society-wide mask mandates do have a chance of curbing the growth of the pandemic if followed and enforced.
“Right now, today, it’s crystal clear we’re headed in the wrong direction. We’ve got more cases than some countries,” Salemi said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t start changing, take individual responsibility, care for one another, and decrease the virus.”
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