Coronavirus Florida: State leaders face hard choices as virus spreads
The land of beach vacations, theme parks and retirees could be uniquely vulnerable to coronavirus, forcing Florida officials soon to confront some hard choices.
Travelers spread the virus, and Florida is an epicenter for international travel thanks to its beaches and warm weather, with 126 million visitors in 2018.
Older people are especially vulnerable to the virus, and Florida has one of the largest and oldest overall populations in the nation.
Crowds spread the virus, and Florida is known as a destination for crowded theme parks, conferences, festivals, sporting events and more. Disney’s Magic Kingdom had the most visitors of any theme park in the world in 2018, with 21 million.
As Florida’s coronavirus outbreak grows, with 12 new cases — an 86% increase — announced Tuesday and Wednesday and two deaths so far, there could be growing pressure to institute more aggressive containment measures and growing worries about what that would mean for the state’s economy.
After initially facing criticism for being slow to release information, Gov. Ron DeSantis has ramped up efforts to respond to the virus, declaring a state of emergency Monday.
The governor held another press conference with state health officials Wednesday as he tries to walk the line between calming people, while also warning the public about the health risk and mobilizing to contain the virus.
DeSantis announced Wednesday that visitation to nursing homes, assisted living centers and other facilities with tens of thousands of elderly individuals will be restricted to “mitigate the risk to our most vulnerable population to COVID-19.” Florida’s university system also announced Wednesday that schools will be shifting to online instruction “immediately” and students on campus will be asked to return home “for at least two weeks.”
Whether more aggressive efforts will be needed to get the virus under control in Florida is one of the biggest questions facing the governor.
If events such as Miami’s Ultra Musical Festival and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s rally planned Thursday in Tampa are being canceled because of fears about spreading the virus in crowds, how long should the state’s theme parks remain open? Should public gatherings be limited? Could schools be closed? Could travel be further restricted?
On Wednesday the governor of Washington banned public gatherings of more than 250 people.
Dr. Glenn Morris, an infectious disease expert at the University of Florida and the director of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, said such actions can be effective, especially when done early in an epidemic.
“A reasonable case can be made for stepping in early with what may be regarded as somewhat draconian recommendations, which is to shut down large gatherings,” Morris said. “That obviously can have substantial economic impacts. Those are judgment calls. That’s a decision for the governor and the Department of Health. The mathematical models suggest those types of interventions are more effective when done early in the course of an epidemic than when done later in the epidemic.”
Schools also have closed in the Seattle area for at least two weeks. Could Florida communities experience something similar?
“Again, these are, to a degree, judgment calls, they are difficult, there are ramifications,” Morris said. “But people need to be aware that this is something that’s on the table and may be something that’s necessary.”
DeSantis could soon be faced with these wrenching decisions, and he’s likely to be criticized either way.
“They’re extremely tough” decisions, said former state Sen. Mike Bennett, who now serves as the supervisor of elections in Manatee County. “And he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.”
Asked about crowds at the theme parks and spring training games during his press conference Wednesday, DeSantis said indoor events “may present more risk” than outdoor ones and decisions about limiting crowds should “be taken on a case by case basis.”
“The Department of Health has been in contact with the theme parks. They’re doing a lot, though,” DeSantis said. “The people using the restrooms there, I don’t think you’ve ever seen so much cleaning agents being applied; I mean they are really working hard to keep those theme parks in good working order.”
DeSantis and his top health official — Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees — also emphasized Wednesday that every case of someone contracting the virus in Florida has been linked to travel, except one that’s still being investigated. They made those remarks before three new cases were announced Wednesday evening, including one that is not listed as travel-related.
“We are not seeing community spread, but this is something that we are watching very, very carefully,” Rivkees said.
But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stated Tuesday that Florida is one of four states seeing community spread of the virus. And Morris also said it seems likely that the virus is spreading in Florida.
“I think it is reasonably likely there is ongoing transmission within the state,” Morris said, adding: “There continue to be issues with testing. The problem right at the moment, there has not been adequate testing to really have a feel for how widespread the virus is in the state.”
If the virus is being spread from person to person in Florida it could heighten calls for restricting public events.
Morris said effectively containing the virus would require both limiting crowds and imposing travel restrictions.
“You need to do both but you can’t be entirely dependent on just restricting people coming because we know we’ve had cases here in Florida and the fact that they were out in the community, there is a reasonable likelihood that others will be infected and there will be ongoing spread,” Morris said.
Israel is forcing anyone who travels to the country to be quarantined for 14 days, essentially shutting down tourism. The entire country of Italy is on lockdown. Florida tourism officials worry that similar travel restrictions would cripple an industry that is the state’s lifeblood.
Florida’s tourism sector already is facing the likelihood of a major slowdown because of the virus. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending people not take cruises, a severe blow for an industry that has an extensive presence in South Florida.
On Wednesday the World Health Organization officially declared the COVID-19 disease caused by this coronavirus a pandemic. It has spread to more than 100 countries, prompting concerns of mounting deaths and economic damage worldwide.
Airlines are reporting a major decline in bookings and there are other signs that many people are rethinking travel plans.
Visit Florida board chair Virginia Haley said the state’s tourism marketing arm is gearing up to try to mitigate the economic fallout from the virus, and is urging DeSantis to proceed with caution. Tourism business owners are on edge, she said. There are worries about state officials overreacting.
Haley participated in a statewide conference call Wednesday that included the governor and tourism industry representatives. She said an Italian restaurant owner in Fort Myers spoke up during the call and noted that his business barely survived the 2018 red tide bloom.
“He hardly kept his doors open and he just can’t take another major slowdown,” Haley said, speaking before President Donald Trump announced a ban on travel to the U.S. from Europe.
Tourism officials asked for more clarity from DeSantis about the state’s guidance for international travelers. She said the initial advice offered by the state was “confusing.”
“There was some concern expressed that the state’s messaging on international travel has been confusing for visitors,” Haley said of the conference call. “Their first messaging made it seem like they were saying all international inbound visitors to Florida needed to self-isolate for 14 days, which is the same as saying our borders are closed.”
Late Wednesday Trump announced that travel from Europe to the United States will be prohibited for 30 days, which could have a major economic impact in Florida. Travelers from the United Kingdom will still be allowed.
Cracking down on events and businesses that attract large crowds also could have a big impact on many Florida businesses.
During testimony Wednesday to the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee, Fauci said: “We would recommend that there not be large crowds.”
Fauci suggested that the NBA should play basketball games without crowds.
But thousands continue to gather daily at Florida’s theme parks, spring training games and elsewhere.
“There are absolutely no advisories on that at all, there’s no suggestion of not having them at this point,” Haley said when asked about limiting attendance at theme parks. “I think the advice they’re giving makes sense. Be sensible, keep your distance.”
A single conference in Boston was linked to 70 coronavirus cases in Massachusetts as of Tuesday evening. Florida is a major destination for conferences, many of which are now likely to be canceled.
Haley, who also serves as the head of Visit Sarasota County, said the region has seen “scattered cancellations.”
“We’ve had a couple groups canceled, and we know of a couple that have postponed,” she said.
Bennett said he recently canceled a 10-day river cruise in Romania that he was planning to take in April because of concerns he might get stuck overseas. He predicted that coronavirus will have a significant impact on tourism in the U.S.
“I think that this one — because of the national publicity — is going to affect tourism, I would say even more than hurricanes,” he said.
The virus is affecting a broad range of other activities too.
Bennett has been encouraging people to vote by mail or do in-person early voting to avoid congestion at polling places, and he reduced the number of precincts that will be open on Election Day, in part because some poll workers did not want to volunteer this year because of fears about being exposed to the public.
“If they want to avoid everything come down early,” Bennett said, noting there are no lines for early voting.
Concerns have been raised that people are overreacting to the virus and panicking in ways that could lead to unnecessary economic repercussions. Trump and others have pointed out that the flu kills thousands of people annually, but does not evoke the same type of response.
But Fauci said coronavirus is much more deadly than the flu.
“People always say, ‘Well, the flu does this, the flu does that.’ The flu has a mortality of 0.1 percent. This has a mortality of 10 times that,” Fauci said Wednesday.
Additionally, people can be vaccinated against the flu, while a coronavirus vaccine likely is more than a year away.
“This is substantially more deadly than the flu is,” Morris said.
And Florida — a retirement haven — is especially susceptible because coronavirus has proven to be much deadlier among older people, Morris said.
“Florida’s a high-risk state, it’s got an older population and the data are very clear, this is an infection that tends to strike the elderly and those with underlying conditions,” Morris said. “And as such I think it is of great concern to Florida because those are the people we have in our population.”
Rivkees said that the mortality rate for COVID-19 among older people can be 20 to 40 times greater than the flu.
Among the 12 new cases reported Tuesday and Wednesday in Florida, all but two are individuals in their 60s and 70s.
Florida now has 26 cases of coronavirus, up from 14 on Monday. Cases of the virus have been reported in 15 counties, including two in Manatee County.
The two individuals who died in Florida were both in their 70s.
Younger people may have less to worry about from the COVID-19 disease, Morris said, but as a society there still is a concern if they contract the disease because they could spread it to older people.
“It’s a really nasty disease; it kills people,” Morris said. “Not to panic people, but there needs to be recognition that this is a serious disease and we as a society need to take the steps necessary to minimize the risk to our elderly populations.”