It’s Monday, July 6, and it’s time to stop the fireworks.
There are few adjectives left to describe what has happened with the coronavirus in Florida in the last month. Explosive growth? Runaway virus? It It took three months for Florida to cross 100,000 new confirmed COVID-19 cases in March through June 22. It took less than two weeks for the state to go from 100,000 to 200,000 cases — and the state reached that grim milestone on Sunday.
While there has been an increase in testing, the results have exposed how widespread the virus has become, especially in South Florida. The state once heralded by President Trump for its low positive testing rate saw the average daily positive test rate rise to 14.47% last week, up from nearly 10% a week before. In Miami-Dade County, the 14-day positive average on Sunday was 22%.
The virus is also shredding assumptions. A week ago, Gov. Ron DeSantis was emphasizing that younger people are less at risk for the worst health outcomes from the virus. Last week, the virus took Florida’s youngest victim, 11-year-old Daequan Wimberly, and the number of people who needed to be hospitalized with COVID-19 complications started to explode.
In Miami-Dade more than 70% of the county’s available ICU beds are filled, a percentage public health experts consider “red flag” territory.
COVID-only hospitals: Back-up hospital space that had been planned but canceled in May, was reactivated last week. The former Miami Medical Center, which is owned by Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, was opened as a COVID-19 only nursing facility. The terms of the lease allow Nicklaus Children’s Hospital to be paid nearly $1 million a month for rent and expenses, significantly higher than the $150,000 a month in the now-shelved deal.
Monitoring hospitals: Unlike testing, which might be limited or take days to report results, public health officials use hospitalizations to get a real-time snapshot of how many people are severely ill with COVID-19 in each county. But while Florida officials collect that information, the state has refused to release the county detail. That is supposedly going to change. Responding to pressure from outside experts, the governor’s office told the Miami Herald that it would start reporting current hospitalization numbers for all counties sometime this week.
WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT
Voluntary closures: With contagion rising, restaurants that once were desperate to open their doors to pay bills and rehire employees, started to voluntarily close their dining rooms to stop the spread of the coronavirus. For many, the danger to their staff and diners — even while operating at no more than 50% capacity — isn’t worth the investment or risk.
Mayors and masks: On Tuesday, when Gov. DeSantis was asked about the decision by most major Florida cities to require residents to wear masks in indoor businesses and public spaces, he called the mask mandates “coercive.” That same day, Jacksonville — which is scheduled to host the Republican National Convention in August — announced a new order to wear masks indoors at public events where social distancing couldn’t be achieved.
By Thursday, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez ordered masks be mandatory in most places, including at restaurant tables, as COVID infections rebounded. He launched a program to have teams hand out masks to county residents to make sure people have them to wear them outside their homes. And he announced a 10 p.m. curfew starting over the holiday weekend, closed casinos, strip clubs, and movie theaters. The mayor, who two weeks ago said “we’re not going back” on business closures also started sounding less confident about that prediction.
Pence arrives: It was not a good look for a state dependent on tourists who want assurances they won’t be putting themselves at risk to travel here. So the drumbeat of counter-messaging looked like this: On Wednesday, the governor said the virus “doesn’t like sunshine, heat and humidity” and encouraged people to get out and enjoy the Fourth of July and avoid crowds, especially indoors. On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Tampa, with a message: “We’re in a much better place thanks to the leadership of President [Donald] Trump” and Florida is in a good position to weather the storm.
That same day, the state reported a record-breaking 10,109 new cases; its seven-day average for deaths rose to 42 per day, the highest since May 9, and 329 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, the third-highest single-day figure since the start of the pandemic.
RNC complications: The resurgent coronavirus outbreak in Florida is complicating President Trump’s reelection fortunes in a must-win state, especially as Republicans continue plans to host the Aug. 24 Republican National Convention in Jacksonville. The governor has tried to do to cities what the president has done to states, allowing mayors to reverse course on reopening. But that hasn’t been completely successful. Last week, the surge in COVID-positive cases from young patrons at some bars prompted him to have the Department of Business and Professional Regulation close bars again last week.
Red wedding? Two weeks ago, the governor hinted that his veto pen would not spare even his closest allies and suggested it would be like the “Red Wedding” in the “Game of Thrones.” The vetoes to the state budget did cut deeply, including more than $1 billion in an effort to blunt the state’s economic fallout from the coronavirus. The cuts brought the state budget to $92.2 billion and left more than $6.3 billion in reserves.
But the projects spared provide a window into the governor’s priorities: pay raises for state workers and starting teacher pay, $322 million for Everglades restoration, $50 million for natural springs, $25 million to fight algal blooms and red tide, and $160 million for statewide water-quality improvements.
Vetoed, however, were $264 million in legislative pet projects, including $60 million in water and wastewater projects and $140.5 million in health and human services spending, a job growth grant fund, a school recognition program, and a new 2nd District Court of Appeals courthouse.
Also vetoed was $225 million in Sadowski Trust funds earmarked for affordable housing. While the money can’t be used by the governor to pay for other expenses, it also effectively freezes the fund until legislators can come back into session and sweep the money into the general revenue account.
And in other news: The internecine wars that have colored Miami-Dade politics for decades surfaced again last week as a political committee that has received hundreds of thousands of dollars raised by outgoing Republican Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva launched attack ads against future House Republican leader Daniel Anthony Perez over a trip he took several years ago to Cuba.
Biden’s Florida hires: Former Vice President Joe Biden is bringing on several veteran strategists key to his campaign in the nation’s most populous swing state, announcing today that his Florida team leaders will be state director Jackie Lee, coordinated director Brandon Thompson, and senior advisers Karen Andre and Juan Peñalosa.
Bogus bills: Federal prosecutors charged 10 business people from Miami and elsewhere with one of the biggest healthcare fraud schemes in state history last week, accusing them of bilking private insurance companies of $1.4 billion in bogus bills for urinalysis and blood tests through rural hospitals.
Expanding vouchers: A U.S. Supreme Court decision — that states that provide school choice vouchers to private schools must also make them available to religious schools — should have little impact on existing Florida programs where school vouchers already go to students in private and religious schools, legal experts said. But it could increase state funds directed to religious institutions.
Limiting abortions: DeSantis quietly signed a bill into law making Florida the sixth state to require both parental notice and consent or a judicial waiver before a minor can get an abortion. As courts go virtual however, the coronavirus has complicated the issue for pregnant teens.
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