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President Trump approves Florida disaster declaration

Decision frees up federal assistance, funding to deal with coronavirus

Drive-through coronavirus testing site in South Florida.
Drive-through coronavirus testing site in South Florida.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – President Donald Trump granted the request to declare a major disaster for the state of Florida, granting federal assistance to areas affected by COVID-19.

The president’s action makes federal funding available for crisis counseling for affected individuals in all areas in Florida and federal funding to governments and certain private nonprofit organizations for emergency protective measures, including direct federal assistance.

“That obviously opens up more federal funds for us, which we’re very appreciative of,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said during an afternoon news briefing. “We’re glad that we were able to get that going.”

On Monday, DeSantis asked Trump to declare Florida a disaster area, saying the coronavirus outbreak is having a “drastic effect” on the state’s economy and medical providers.

DeSantis wrote in a letter to Trump that Florida’s “hospitals, medical facilities, and first responders are facing challenges rarely experienced before." and the state has already spent $208 million on related unemployment assistance, food stamps, disaster loans and mental health counseling.

This is no hurricane, but DeSantis wrote that the state’s medical system is already burdened and the situation will get worse, with limited testing showing more than 1,400 people infected and 17 deaths.

“The process of triaging and isolating affected individuals is significantly disrupting lifesaving and life sustaining services," DeSantis wrote. "Additionally, the insufficient medical resources and capacities of medical facilities, and the already limited number of qualified medical personnel will only continue to rapidly deplete as the impacts of COVID-19 continue to spread.”

DeSantis added that a survey of more than 6,600 businesses shows more than half have laid off employees, totaling more than 40,400 people. He also said requests for unemployment benefits have spiked, to 130,000 in four days last week, compared to 28,000 for the entire previous week.

The Florida Department of Health announced Tuesday that a baby boy and a 2-year-old girl have tested positive for COVID-19 in Broward County. Health officials listed both cases under “unknown” for travel-related and did not state whether either child had been in contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus.

The girl is the second 2-year-old girl in Florida to test positive for coronavirus. The other is in Gainesville.

Meanwhile, some of Florida's harder-hit municipalities ordered all their residents to shelter-in-place on Tuesday after DeSantis argued against a statewide order and blamed people flying in from New York and New Jersey for potentially spreading the coronavirus.

Officials are restricting travel on the only two roads leading into the Florida Keys from the mainland. Monroe County announced Tuesday that southbound traffic stops will be in place near the county line on U.S. 1 and on State Road 905 by early Friday. The stations are meant to reinforce the island chain's previous closure to visitors and non-residents.

The "Safer at Home" order went into effect Tuesday morning for Miami Beach residents. Other Miami-Dade County municipalities, including Bay Harbor Islands and Bal Harbour Village, issued similar orders Monday night.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said Tuesday he is issuing a stay-at-home order for the county that includes Orlando. The order goes into effect on Thursday.

“People should only be outside for exercise and attending to their necessities like shopping for groceries or visiting a pharmacy,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said in a statement. “It won’t be like this forever, but for now in a community like ours this makes the most sense.”

Company officials said Tuesday that they are extending the closure of Universal Orlando Resort and Universal Studios Hollywood through April 19. The company had originally planned the closures through the end of March.

DeSantis issued an executive order Monday requiring anyone arriving on a flight from the New York City area to self-quarantine for two weeks. State officials did not immediately return calls Monday evening seeking information on how many of those diagnosed in Florida recently arrived or returned from New York or had contact with someone who did.

The virus causes only minor flu-like symptoms in most people, who recover in a matter of weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death in some, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health problems. Severe cases are often only able to breathe with respirators, stressing the health care system's capacity to respond.

Still, DeSantis said Monday he wants to avoid imposing a statewide lockdown like California, New York and other states have done, because he still believes focusing the most extreme measures on counties hardest hit by the virus is preferable.

About half the state's reported COVID-19 cases are in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. But testing remains limited and has yet to show any cases of the virus in a third of Florida's 67 counties. Another third have reported only a few.

“It would be a very blunt instrument. When you’re ordering people to shelter in place you are consigning a number – probably hundreds of thousands of Floridians to lose their jobs,” DeSantis said.

Some Florida Democrats are calling on the Republican governor to impose a statewide stay-at-home order, but DeSantis said states that have done so have seen large numbers refuse to comply. He said such people realize ”a governor is not going to start imprisoning people just because they leave their house.”

DeSantis has ordered such statewide closures as bars and gyms, and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery. State parks have been closed. But some counties have gone farther, closing not only nonessential businesses but also beaches, marinas and some other public areas.