ORLANDO, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is under intense pressure over what critics are calling a slow response to the coronavirus outbreak in the state as the number of cases nears 1,700.
While other governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo (D) and Maryland’s Larry Hogan (R) have received high marks for their swift responses to the virus, DeSantis has faced backlash for his lack of early action on closing the state’s crowded beaches and not issuing a statewide stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is expected to court Florida voters during the 2020 campaign, hit DeSantis on Wednesday, saying the governor has neglected to take “strong, urgent, and sweeping action” to stop the spread of the virus in the state.
Ten Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation also sent a letter to DeSantis on Wednesday, calling on him to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order.
The members cited the lack of a COVID-19 vaccine, the state’s large elderly population, as well as the risk of overwhelming the “already-strained health care system” as reasons to implement the order.
“There is still time to get this right. I hope that the governor will issue a shelter in place order soon, as we try to save as many lives as possible during this crisis,” Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), one of the signatories, said in a statement to The Hill.
During an appearance on MSNBC on Monday, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.) said that “conducting patchwork solutions” wouldn’t help slow the spread of the virus, arguing the state “needs to start being proactive, not reactive.”
“We have already seen a huge impact on our economy, but we’re not going to be able to start our road to an economic recovery if we can’t control the spread of the virus,” she said.
“We have a very vulnerable population in the state of Florida, almost a quarter of the people that live here are over 60 years old. And so I am just concerned that the governor is not taking appropriate action.”
DeSantis has pushed back against calls for a statewide stay-at-home order, arguing that it would not make sense for parts of the state that are less populated and haven’t been hit as hard as the densely populated portions of the state.
“We obviously have an outbreak in southeast Florida,” DeSantis said at a press conference in Orlando on Wednesday. “I also think there are certain parts of the state where you have more sporadic cases and to order someone not to be able to earn a paycheck when them going to work is not going to have any effect on what we’re doing with the virus, that is something that I think is inappropriate.”
DeSantis’ remarks align with the approach floated by President Trump, who told reporters Monday that he would like to see local economies outside of “hot spots” resume business in weeks, not months.
South Florida, the most populated region of the state, is the epicenter of the virus in Florida, with 400 cases in Miami-Dade County, 355 cases in Broward County, and 118 cases in Palm Beach County as of Wednesday.
DeSantis noted that not every local leader said they needed his help.
“I talked with the mayor of Jacksonville, and I said look, I’m willing to work with you on whatever, if you want to work with your surrounding counties,” the governor said. “He just didn’t think it made sense given the circumstances.”
There were 134 positive coronavirus cases in northeast Florida, home to Jacksonville, as of Wednesday morning.
Local governments have taken matters into their own hands, issuing their own stay-at-home orders.
Orange County, which makes up a large swath of the greater Orlando area, will be under a stay-at-home order starting on Thursday. Nearby Osceola County also plans on ordering its residents to stay home on Thursday. A “safer-at-home” order went into effect in Miami Beach on Tuesday, while a number of Miami-Dade County municipalities enacted similar measures.
Additionally, all schools in the state are closed, and tourist attractions, including Walt Disney World and Universal Studios have shuttered for the time being.
However, the local approach has hit some roadblocks.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castro was set to direct the city’s residents to stay at home on Tuesday, but Hillsborough County Mike Merrill blocked the move, arguing the decision was up to county leaders.
“He’s [DeSantis] created massive confusion,” a Florida Democratic strategist said. “Now you have the county and the city fighting with each other in the middle of a public crisis.”
“A statewide order will completely wipe away any confusion to where people need to stay home and protect cities, counties, and jurisdictional sites,” the strategist added.
DeSantis’s allies argue that a stay-at-home order is a one-size-fits-all approach.
“What DeSantis is trying to do is remain flexible,” Florida Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said. “What he’s basically saying is what is best for Miami may not be best for the Panhandle, and what he’s trying to do is be able to maintain it so that when we do weather the storm, we can get back to normal as quickly as possible.”
DeSantis has targeted a number of his efforts at South Florida, where many New York City-area inhabitants own winter or retirement homes.
On Tuesday, the governor ordered anyone in the state who has traveled from the greater New York City area to Florida over the past three weeks to self-isolate, and announced that the state’s surgeon general would issue a health advisory warning people 65 years and older to stay inside over the next two weeks.
New York City has the largest number of positive coronavirus cases in the country.
Critics say DeSantis’s efforts are too little, too late, and point to his recent lack of action even as spring breakers flocked to Florida beaches amid the pandemic.
“Due to the rapidly accelerating spread of Coronavirus, it is essential that the Governor use his power to immediately close access to all public beaches in the State of Florida,” Democrats in the Florida delegation wrote in a statement last week. “While this is no small request, eliminating access to beaches is an absolute necessity if we want to successfully slow the spread of the virus.”
But DeSantis’s allies have defended his approach, calling criticisms of the governor “unfair.”
“Closing all the bars and most of the beaches is Spring Break kryptonite. I expect things to dissipate,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) told The Hill on Friday.
DeSantis closed the beaches in Broward and Palm Beach counties late last week and directed all of Florida’s state parks to shutter on Monday. He also closed gyms and fitness centers and ended in-dining service in restaurants Friday.
Supporters say it is too early to tell what kind of impact DeSantis’s response will have on him politically, saying it will depend on how much damage is done to Florida amid the pandemic and economic crisis.
Critics, however, say the damage is already done.
“I don’t think you would have talked to anyone who didn’t a few months ago think this was one of the most popular governors in America,” a Florida Democratic strategist said. “I think this guy has made himself probably one of the most vulnerable governors in America.”