ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Floridians saw a flurry of positive coronavirus news Tuesday, from an announcement that the state will receive more than 6.4 million rapid tests to one that said Tampa International Airport would begin testing passengers for the virus in the terminal.
Also, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said the postponed St. Pete Grand Prix motorsports race is a go for Oct. 25.
The announcements come just days after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis lifted all restrictions on restaurants and other businesses in Florida, and banned local fines against people who refuse to wear masks as he seeks to reopen the state’s economy despite the spread of the coronavirus.
DeSantis spoke again during a news conference Tuesday about the need to get the economy in gear.
“I really believe you can do things safely, and telling people no, that they can’t earn a living, I don’t think is something that we want to do. I think we want people to be able to earn a living," he said.
One day after President Donald Trump announced the federal government has purchased 150 million rapid tests for the coronavirus, DeSantis said Florida will receive 6.4 million of the tests in addition to what’s being sent directly to the state’s nursing homes.
“What we’re going to be doing not just nursing homes, not just long term care facilities, but we are going to have priority for any senior center, any retirement community,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis said the state should be getting shipments by the end of the week and receive 400,000 test kits a week.
“You can also use it so that folks who are also more vulnerable will be able to enjoy life to the fullest. For example, if you have a senior who would like to have younger family members come, these will be available. This is a 15 minute deal. You can do that. It really lets people do more,” DeSantis said.
Asked later about infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci’s concerns about lifting all restaurant restrictions, as DeSantis did Friday, the governor defended the decision.
“We’ve had restaurants open the whole time. Obviously, we had a 50% capacity,” he said.
But he said contact tracing did not show much spread at restaurants.
“The industry has had to really reimagine itself in terms of how you approach this, and if you go into restaurants, they’re doing things that was never required by any type of regulation, and so what we said was, ‘OK, you can’t close the restaurants,'” DeSantis said. “I’m confident that these restaurants want to have safe environments. And I’m also confident that as a consumer, if you don’t go and you don’t think they’re taking precautions, then obviously then you’re going to take your business elsewhere. So they have an incentive to do it.”
Meanwhile, a trial testing program at Tampa International Airport will get underway in October.
The Florida airport and BayCare Health System will offer voluntary testing for any passenger departing from or arriving at the airport. The tests are open to anyone who has flown, or is flying, within three days, and can show proof of travel.
Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano said during a news conference Tuesday that “testing is the key to getting back to travel.”
“If it’s successful, and we think it will be, we’ll continue and we’ll build it and it will grow even more,” he said.
There will be two types of tests for passengers: a rapid antigen test, which costs $57, and a polymerase chain reaction swab, which costs $125. The tests will be offered daily on a walk-in basis from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. through the month of October.
During a news conference, airport officials said passengers will be encouraged to take the more expensive swab three days before departure. Results for that test should arrive within 48 hours. The antigen test “offers an added layer of same-day reassurance” for travelers, airport executives said.
It’s not as if the virus has subsided, however. Florida added 3,266 coronavirus cases Tuesday to push the statewide total to 704,568 infected. With 106 new virus fatalities reported statewide, 14,143 Florida residents are now dead.
Disparities between counties is still present. Miami-Dade County reported Tuesday that nearly 7% of its COVID-19 tests returned positive results, after registering lows of about 3% and 4%. Local officials did not immediately explain the rising rate of positivity.
In Pinellas County, which is the state's sixth largest, the two-week rolling average of percent positive tests is just over 3%, said Kriseman, and has hovered in the 2% to 3% range for five weeks.
“We can coexist with the virus if we stay under 5%,” he said.
It's one reason why the city and Grand Prix officials are planning to hold the race, albeit with social distancing and other safety requirements. An announcement will be made later this week regarding the race.
“We intend to allow a limited number of fans to attend the GP,” Kriseman said, adding, “a final decision on race will come this week.”
IndyCar was supposed to start its season March 15 on the temporary street course and teams were already in place to compete before sports shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. IndyCar initially planned to go forward with the opener without spectators but ultimately suspended the season 48 hours before the race.