Florida officials worried about spike in coronavirus cases

Kelli Ann Thomas, a candidate for Community Council, sorts signs before the start of a Workers First Caravan, Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Miami. The caravan was part of a nation-wide effort to urge those in government to implement policies that further economic and racial justice. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (Wilfredo Lee, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – In parts of Florida, people under the age of 35 are testing positive for the coronavirus at a higher rate since the pandemic began, contributing to a recent surge in the number of cases in the state, officials said Wednesday.

Because of this, some mayors are considering tightening restrictions on places where younger folks gather -- namely, bars and restaurants. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced Wednesday that due to a rise in COVID-19 cases there will be increased enforcement to shut down businesses not following rules put in place to safely reopen during the pandemic.

Some new cases have been traced to reopenings of bars in Jacksonville Beach. A health care worker says she became sick with COVID-19 and 15 of her friends tested positive for the virus after they spent a night out at a bar.

Erika Crisp, 40, said she and her friends had stayed home for months and practiced social distancing, but on June 6 they went to a crowded pub and did not wear masks or stand apart.

“I think we were careless and we went out into a public place when we should not have,” she told News4Jax. “The state opens back up and said everybody was fine, so we took advantage of that.”

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said Wednesday that all employees who have contact with the public will be required to wear masks — something that some South Florida cities hard hit by the virus have been doing for weeks. He's also crafting a second ordinance that would require residents to wear masks when inside businesses or other public spaces.

“We can suffer the short term inconveniences and put the worst of the virus behind us or we can suffer indefinitely in fits and starts. We can wear a mask, protect others and ourselves, or we can contribute to someone's death. Maybe even our own,” Kriseman said.

He was critical of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis who has “encouraged” people to use masks, and not “mandated” them.

Kriseman said the percentage of positive tests compared to the number of tests performed has been steadily increasing, which he attributed to higher community spread since people started socializing more over Memorial Day weekend.

St. Petersburg is the state’s fifth-largest city and the largest in Pinellas County, where a third of the coronavirus cases have been diagnosed in the past week alone. Statewide, Wednesday was the 15th consecutive day where new recorded cases topped 1,000. Tuesday saw a record-setting 2,783 new cases.

At least some of the increase reflects expanded testing especially among people who are younger and without symptoms. But the rate of positive tests also has been ticking upward in recent days, raising alarm.

As of Wednesday, Florida has reported 80,109 positive tests out of 1,460,309 tests conducted since the pandemic began, giving a positivity rate of 5.5%, according to the COVID Tracking Project. But rates have increased over the past two weeks from about 4% to about 7%.

Although Florida’s outbreak with just over 3,000 deaths has been less severe than in many states — per capita, about 27th and more than 10 times less deadly than in New York — it is now about 15th in the country in new daily cases per capita.

In St. Petersburg recently, three popular bars closed after employees tested positive. Other restaurants have gone to delivery and pickup only.

Tom Golden, owner of a St. Petersburg restaurant called The Lure, said he's still seating customers indoors and out, while trying to be careful to keep a safe distance between tables.

“You can’t keep everything locked down forever,” he said. “Now it’s just a matter of managing it to a degree. I don’t see it going back to a lockdown situation.”

The increase in cases is a concern as central Florida theme parks either have reopened or are days away from reopening. The Republican National Committee also plans to hold a Trump nomination celebration in Jacksonville in late August.

DeSantis said Tuesday he has no intention of reclosing Florida’s economy despite the spikes in new cases, saying many of the newly detected are young and healthy and unlikely to suffer serious illness or death.

DeSantis said much of the two-week spike in confirmed infections that pushed the daily total past 2,700 Tuesday can be traced to hot spots such as farm labor camps or businesses where a few positive cases led to widespread testing that uncovered high percentages of asymptomatic or barely symptomatic cases.

Associated Press writers Michael Schneider in Orlando, Florida, and Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, contributed to this report.