TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — After weeks of resisting a statewide stay-home order, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced on Wednesday that he would sign an executive order limiting all activity in Florida to essential services until the end of April to try to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The order is effective at 12:01 a.m. on April 3 and expires on April 30, when the governor could extend it. It comes a day after the White House revised its guidelines and extended social distancing recommendations until the end of April.
The order also comes one month after Florida’s first two cases of COVID-19 were confirmed March 2: a 63-year-old Manatee County man who had not traveled recently and a 29-year-old Hillsborough County woman who had recently traveled to Italy.
There were 6,954 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases in Florida as of midday Wednesday. Eighty-seven people have died, and there are 890 hospitalized. The number of cases in the state has doubled about every three days.
“We’re going to be in this for another 30 days,” the governor said at a news conference crowded with reporters in his small Capitol office.
“That’s just the reality that we find ourselves in. And so, given those circumstances, given the unique situation in Florida, I’m going to be doing an executive order today, directing all Floridians to limit movements and personal interactions outside the home to only those necessary to obtain or provide essential services or conduct essential activities.”
The order exempts several businesses and activities he considers “essential services,” including “religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship,” pet care, and taking care of a loved one.
DeSantis said the list of essential services was designed to closely follow the “safer at home” order issued by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Thursday. The complete list has not yet been published but is expected to be posted on the Department of Health website.
Florida now will become the 34th state to ask its residents to essentially stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the deadly disease caused by the coronavirus.
As recently as Tuesday, he insisted a statewide stay-home order was unnecessary because the bulk of the cases, and the testing, has been in South Florida.
Public health experts, however, have warned that the state’s failure to implement stronger limitations on person-to-person contact increased the possibility that the disease would continue to spread into other counties and Florida would continue to see cases increase for months.
DeSantis followed a pattern of first allowing local mayors and city officials to make the tough calls about closing beaches, bars and businesses to contain the spread of the virus, before taking more dramatic action. In other states, governors were acting more aggressively, going beyond the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and issuing stay-home orders. President Donald Trump, who initially suggested the “prevention was worse than the disease,” seemed to agree.
On Tuesday, DeSantis again dismissed the value of a statewide stay-home order, suggesting that on a trip to South Florida on Monday he had seen beaches that had been ordered closed but had people gathering on them, anyway.
“I was flying out of Miami yesterday,” he said, “looking at beaches with signs saying they were closed. Were there people out there? Damn right there were. It’s really up to the locals to deal with them one way or the other.”
For nearly two weeks, the governor endured blistering criticism from public health experts, state and local officials and political opponents as he insisted it was not good for Florida to get ahead of the guidelines as posted by the CDC.
But on Tuesday evening, Trump’s top public health experts, Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, predicted that if Americans implement “full mitigation” measures for another 30 days, it would reduce the projected number of U.S. deaths from COVID-19 from the worst-case scenario of millions to 100,000 to 240,000.
They also commended the states of California and Washington, where extreme social-distancing measures were put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19 early.
So when the president’s coronavirus task force ordered the nation to practice social distancing, work and school from home, avoid discretionary travel, stay away from nursing homes and limit social gatherings to 10 people for another 30 days, DeSantis had little choice but to follow.
DeSantis said Wednesday he consulted with the White House and the president, whom he said “agreed with the approach of focusing on the hot spots.” That approach had been the governor’s preference as he faced pressure from the state’s leading businesses to allow nonessential firms to operate to aid the economy.
But, the governor conceded, previous guidance from the White House regarding an easing back into normal life by Easter, April 12, “isn’t going to happen.” The president “understood that this is another 30-day situation and, and you got to just do what makes the most sense,” he said.
DeSantis was asked to comment on the University of Washington model, which is predicting that Florida will see a rapid increase in the number of deaths and hospitalizations, with as many as 100 people dying daily by mid-April and the death of 6,600 Floridians by June 1.
“We all look at this and say, ‘You know, this thing is really nasty,’ ” he said. “It’s something that’s caused a lot of harm to a lot of people. I think that we need to have all the levers going.”
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who has spent the last two weeks calling for a stay-home order and blasting the governor for being shortsighted, commended his decision.
“Thank you, governor, for making the right call,” said Fried, the lone Democrat holding a statewide elected office, in a statement. “Together, we will fight this virus and preserve the state we love.”
Another critic, Terrie Rizzo, chair of the Florida Democratic Party, was less generous.
“It is distressing that Gov. Ron DeSantis waited until the coronavirus had spread to so many Floridians before finally issuing a statewide stay-at-home order,” Rizzo said in a statement. “I hope this will finally slow the rise in infections and that his actions are not too late.”
Also Wednesday, the governor said he would work to accommodate passengers stranded on cruise ships heading for Port Everglades in Broward County. He said he spoke with Trump, who is willing to help the state resolve the issue. But DeSantis repeated his concern that he doesn’t want many of the foreign nationals on board to take up precious hospital space.
“We’re going to be willing to accept any Floridians who are on board, and my understanding is that most of the passengers are foreign nationals,” he said. “I think that they’re working on ways to deal with that. Of course, my concern is simply that we have worked so hard to make sure we have adequate hospital space,” adding, “We wouldn’t want, you know, those valuable beds to be taken because of the cruise ship.”
The governor also announced that with Florida roads experiencing no congestion, he was going to use the opportunity to have the Department Transportation speed up $2.1 billion in projects around the state.
They include: accelerating the $802 million Miami-Dade I-395/I-95 reconstruction project being done in conjunction with the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority; accelerating by four weeks the $864 million Howard Franklin bridge project in the Tampa Bay area; accelerating by three months the widening of Southern Boulevard in western Palm Beach County; and accelerating by four to six weeks the Sand Lake project near International Drive and Universal Boulevard in Orlando.
The goal, DeSantis said, is to “close down more lanes because the traffic isn’t what it was” in order to make progress on the long-planned projects and keep some people working.
The governor made his comments at a news conference where reporters were not allowed to sit six feet apart, despite requests on March 20 from the state’s largest news organizations asking him to accommodate the social-distancing practices the CDC recommended.
(Miami Herald staff writer Samantha J. Gross contributed to this report from Miami.)
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