TAMPA, Fla. – Florida’s stay-at-home order issued at the beginning of the month by Gov. Ron DeSantis expires Thursday.
The governor has not yet provided a date for when he expects Florida to start reopening its shuttered businesses but said Monday “there is a light at the end of the tunnel for Floridians.”
During his latest COVID-19 update from Tampa General Hospital on Monday, DeSantis continued to point to data that show the predicted crisis of hospitals being overwhelmed with patients never came to pass.
He said peak hospitalization from COVID-19 in the state’s hotspots occurred early in April. He said hospital occupancy rates are down statewide, and the number of positive COVID-19 tests are declining.
DeSantis stopped short of setting out a plan to reopen the state’s economy and stressed that the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak are much different in different parts of the state.
DeSantis said the state will reopen from the coronavirus economic shutdown in “baby steps” and that its regions could reopen at different times and rates.
“This is going to be slow and steady wins the race,” DeSantis said, adding that many will think it’s too slow, but he’s determined to be methodical and make data-driven decisions to avoid a spike in coronavirus cases. “This is unchartered territory. We use the data and the facts as best we can.”
The governor said that for most people, the reopening's first phase will not be much different than what they are experiencing now with schools and nonessential businesses closed and people being encouraged to stay home. He is expected to begin laying out his plans this week as he reviews recommendations from a task force he appointed that looked at reopening various aspects of the economy.
“Phase One is a baby step,” DeSantis said. “We are deliberately going to be very methodical, slow and data-driven on this because I think people want to have confidence things are going in a good direction."
He said a slow approach would also give the state an opportunity to step in to handle any spikes in the disease that might occur.
The Republican governor said while Miami-Dade County and the rest of South Florida have had fewer per-capita confirmed infections than many parts of the country, they do have the highest rate in Florida. That means it is likely that area will open more slowly than other parts like Tampa Bay, which have had a lower infection rate., he said.
Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties had different exposure levels because in January and February they received thousands of travelers from the heavily infected New York City area and they have highly used cruise ship ports.
There were some signs of stirring in South Florida on Monday. In Key West, beaches were reopened to residents although the Florida Keys remain closed to visitors. Miami-Dade is planning to reopen its parks with heavy restrictions such as no doubles in tennis and basketball being limited to shooting only by three people per basket, no games.
“It is really a different ballgame when you compare southeast Florida to the rest” of the state, DeSantis said. “Pretty much the rest of the state has really handled this very well. There has never been even close to a stress on capacity of health care resources.”
DeSantis has given no indication that he plans to extend the state’s stay-at-home order.
“Obviously, I mean, because we’re coming up at the end of the month, and we’re going to do it, but I think when you look at kind of the guidelines The White House has put out, I think that that’s a pretty good roadmap,” DeSantis said over the weekend. “I’ve said many times, I’d rather do it smartly and safely and methodically...Even if you could flip the switch, if people don’t have confidence, then the economy is not just going to take off. It’s not the way it works.”
In the meantime, the state’s beleaguered online unemployment system continued to struggle.
It was shut down over the weekend while the state scrambled to process applications and reduce a massive backlog of claims.
Users of the Department of Economic Opportunity’s CONNECT system, which cost $77 million to get online in 2013, received a message Friday saying the site will be available at 8 a.m. Monday. They were redirected in the meantime to a backup site where they can submit new applications.
DeSantis said Monday that taking the system down allowed them to process another 300,00 claims over the weekend and that payments should be reaching people’s accounts on Monday.
The unemployment system has been stressed over the past two months as hundreds of thousands of Floridians went to the state for help after losing their jobs due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Many have reported issues with applying for assistance and delays in payments.
“Look, this thing that was done on this just before I was governor, but they spent $77 million on something that is really, really a flawed product and so it’s required a lot of 24-7 technical work to be able to get going. So this weekend they’re working hard to process things that have been held up,” DeSantis said. “People should understand that this has been a tsunami that this system was not built for.”
He said Monday that although the system is not worth the money the state paid for it years ago, the capacity issues would likely have happened on any system.
“You would not build a system with it in mind that the economy would suddenly stop,” DeSantis said, adding that he’ll address the issues with the system more fully once the state has caught up on the backlog of payments and claims. “I’m not going to cry over the spilled milk now because my No. 1 concern right now, outside of health, is to get the checks out.”
Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter said wait times have improved, but he expected there could be a crush when the system returned on Monday.
“Quite frankly, the more checks we issue, the less questions we’ll have,” Satter said.
DeSantis has said repeatedly that the curve has been flattened in Florida, citing data showing hospitalization rates have decreased across the state and expanded testing shows a decline in the rate of those testing positive for COVID-19.
DeSantis said keeping consistent testing at places like Lot J, the Prime Osborn Convention Center and the new walk-up testing at Kooker Park will help keep track of how the virus is moving.
“We do think it’s important to have as robust testing as possible,” he said.
Friday, Jacksonville added a walk-up testing site a Kooker Park. Working with the University of Florida, the state provided swabs and testing kits. Up to 200 tests are available at the site. On Sunday, 166 people were tested at Lot J and 108 people were tested at Kooker Park, the city said.
The city said more sites will open in other neighborhoods soon, and the city is also working on two drive-up sites in Walmart parking lots.
During a news conference Saturday, DeSantis said that he’s ordered the Department of Health to buy high-throughput machines.
“We have three state labs: Jacksonville, Tampa, Miami, and they do a good job but they’re only processing hundreds of samples a day as their maximum,” DeSantis said Saturday.
DeSantis said the labs in the State of Florida should be able to do about 10,000 samples a day. He said the machines should arrive in May, and he hopes to have the testing in place “by the summer.”
The governor said it’s been confirmed that the state will also have the antibody tests that were ordered. They’re scheduled to arrive next month.
Desantis said he wants doctors to be equipped with antibody tests to determine on a large scale who is immune to COVID-19.
“We are going to have our first big shipment of those antibody tests by May 9 down in Miami,” DeSantis said. "We also have other tests coming in from the government and other companies. Those antibody tests will be very helpful because if you have a health care worker and they have antibodies, then you know they are at lower risk of infection. If you can do a study as a whole, that gives us a sense of how it moved through a community.”
The News Service of Florida and The Associated Press contributed to this report.