Florida becomes epicenter of COVID-19 surge

ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida’s newfound status as the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. has thrust the state into crisis mode as officials battle over the best way to curb the outbreak.

On Tuesday, Florida hit 11,515 hospitalizations due to COVID-19, marking the third straight day that the state has broken its record. About 2,400 patients are now in intensive care. At the same time, there’s concern among experts that the Sunshine State is still weeks away from hitting its peak. The state now accounts for roughly 1 in 5 new cases nationally.

Still, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisPoll: Trump dominates 2024 Republican primary field Republican politicians: Let OSHA do its job Ben & Jerry's unveils new flavor in support of Cori Bush's public safety reform bill MORE, a rising Republican star who won accolades from conservatives last year for his laissez faire approach to the pandemic, has resisted calls for new mask mandates or lockdowns, arguing that such restrictions had worsened the public health and economic effects on other states.

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DeSantis and the Republican-controlled state legislature have also sought to preempt county and local governments from imposing their own rules, drawing backlash from local officials.

"We're not allowed to have mask mandates now,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said in an interview on CNN this week. “We were one of the first cities to require it and we charged a fine just to get people to do it. The governor stopped allowing us to do it and then immediately we saw a surge across our county and state when he did that.”

Driving the spiraling COVID-19 caseload in Florida is the spread of the more contagious delta variant, which is now the dominant strain of the virus in the U.S. The state has also seen its vaccination rate level off over the past several months as social distancing guidelines have relaxed and Americans have begun to return to a kind of pre-pandemic normal.

Demand for COVID-19 testing has grown in recent days, with some Floridians waiting in line for hours. Orange County, where Orlando is located, opened a second large-scale testing site at a soccer complex Tuesday in an effort to alleviate wait times at another testing location.

DeSantis has called on Floridians to get one of the three available coronavirus vaccines, and so far about 50 percent of the state’s population — more than 10 million people — have been fully vaccinated. Fewer people are dying from the virus, as well.

Last week, COVID-19 deaths averaged about 55 per day — a significant improvement from a year ago when the death rate spiked to roughly 180 per day. DeSantis on Tuesday credited the decline in daily deaths to his administration’s early push to vaccinate seniors.

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“Even among a lot of positive tests, you are seeing much less mortality than you did year-over-year,” he said at a press conference. “Would I rather have 5,000 cases among 20-year-olds or 500 cases among seniors? I would rather have the younger.”

"I think protecting the vulnerable has been the right way to go,” he added.

DeSantis has also repeatedly insisted that the recent spike in new COVID-19 infections in his state is “seasonal” and will begin to decline this month. But some experts have questioned that timeline, believing that the outbreak in Florida has yet to reach its peak. SEIRcast, a coronavirus forecasting model, shows the caseload in Florida reaching its height in September.

“These predictions warn that until vaccination rates are ramped up to achieve herd immunity over this fall, people will still need to follow social distancing measures, such as wearing face coverings at the very least, to protect themselves and to reduce infection spread,” Edwin Michael, a professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida who led the development of the forecasting model, said in a statement.

But implementing new social distancing guidelines and mask mandates are not among DeSantis’s priorities.

In May, the Florida governor signed legislation giving him sweeping authority to invalidate local pandemic emergency measures, including mask mandates and school shutdowns. That legislation also made permanent an executive order that DeSantis signed earlier this year that banned businesses from requiring patrons to show proof of vaccinations.

In another move aimed at curbing mandates, DeSantis signed another executive order just last week making face masks optional in schools.

The efforts by the governor and state legislature to preempt local governments from imposing their own pandemic restrictions has been met with frustration by many officials.

DeSantis’s approach has sparked the ire of Democrats inside and outside of Florida, with many using the hashtag #DeathSantis to attack him online.

“Democratic critics are savaging him,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.

Broward County Mayor Steve Geller lamented the state’s restrictions on local mandates on Monday. While the county has the ability to require masks in its buildings, he said, county officials’ hands are tied when it comes to implementing broader masking rules.

“It is my opinion that local governments should be able to respond to the necessary circumstances in their areas,” he said at a news conference.

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“When we tell them what works in Bradford County population 28,000 doesn’t work in Broward County population about 2 million, they tell us 'no the federal government is too big and the local governments are too small, but the state is just right and they know everything,' ” Geller added. “I was in the legislature for 20 years. I can tell you the legislature doesn’t know everything.”

Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member from Florida, said that the preemptions by the state and governor’s office fall into a larger pattern in Florida, accusing Republicans of grabbing power from county and municipal governments over their years in power.

“It’s a trend that precedes DeSantis,” Kennedy said. “The erosion of home rule and the pervasive use of preemption from Tallahassee and local governments. These small government conservatives are, dare I say, tyrannical in the way they interact with local governments.”

DeSantis isn’t alone in opposing a statewide mask mandate. On Monday, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the lone statewide elected Democrat and one of DeSantis’s 2022 challengers, said she was not in favor of a statewide masking rule, but argued that the decision should be left to county and local governments.

Another one of DeSantis’s challengers, Rep. Charlie CristCharles (Charlie) Joseph CristGovernors brace for 2022 after year in pandemic spotlight Trump announces endorsement in GOP race to replace Crist in Florida GOP leader taking proxy voting fight to Supreme Court MORE (D-Fla.), who served in the governor’s mansion himself, went further Tuesday, calling on DeSantis to require state employees to either be vaccinated or undergo regular testing and masking requirements.

To be sure, DeSantis’s relatively lax approach to coronavirus-related restrictions has fared better in the past than many public health officials predicted it would; the state’s COVID-19 caseloads and death rate remained relatively low last year compared to other large states.

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The White House criticized DeSantis’s handling of the recent surge in cases Monday, saying “at a certain point leaders are going to have to choose whether they’re going to follow public health guidelines or they’re going to follow politics.”

“We certainly encourage all governors to follow the public health guidelines,” White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Rocky US alliances as Biden heads to UN assembly Five things to watch as Biden heads to the UN Biden to get COVID-19 booster on camera once fully approved MORE told reporters. “There are steps and precautions that can be taken, including encouraging people to get vaccinated, encouraging people to wear masks, including allowing schools to mandate masks and allowing kids to wear masks, which is not the current state of play in Florida.”

DeSantis hit back at the criticism during a press conference in Miami on Tuesday, claiming the news media was creating “hysteria” over hospitalizations.

"I think it's important to point out, because obviously, media does hysteria,” DeSantis said. “You try to fear monger, you try to do this stuff. And when they talk about hospitalizations, our hospitals are open for business.”

Despite the negative coverage of DeSantis’s handling of the pandemic, he still carries widespread support among Republicans who have lauded him for keeping Florida open during the pandemic. The governor has referred to Florida as an “oasis of freedom” during the pandemic.

“Many Republicans continue to support and back up the governor. They think that, as the governor seems to believe, that the big worry of this pandemic at this point is government overreach, government mandates, and government taking away people’s individual freedom to choose,” Jewett said.

Fifty-two percent of Floridians said they approved of DeSantis’s handling of the pandemic, according to a University of South Florida poll released late last month.

“If the pandemic continues unabated over the next few weeks, I’d be shocked if the numbers of his approval rating didn’t change,” Jewett said. “Eventually, I think, there’s going to be a majority of people in Florida that expect more.”