Coronavirus Florida: DeSantis says checks to jobless ’top economic’ priority
Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday seemingly tapped the brakes on talk of an economic reawakening in Florida saying the “top” financial need at the moment is getting monetary relief to those left jobless by coronavirus-forced business closures.
“We are now in an economic crisis as well,” DeSantis said. “It’s thrown a lot of Floridians out of work through no fault of their own.”
The governor said efforts to get money to those seeking unemployment benefits — dogged by weeks of breakdowns by a shortchanged and overwhelmed online application system — are showing signs of progress.
As the governor spoke, officials reported that the Palm Beach County unemployment rate, which stood at a historic low of 3% in February, rocketed up to 4.4% in March, entirely due to the onset of the economic shutdown.
Worse, that number reflects only the fallout from the start of the economic paralysis federal, state and national public health officials said was critical to slow community spread of the virus and save lives. The number for April will be much higher.
“The reality is that we are facing unprecedented record high unemployment at national, state and local levels,” said Julia Dattolo, interim president and CEO of CareerSource Palm Beach County. “That said, we are hopeful the impact will be short-term and we expect staggered starts to reopen our local economy beginning in May.”
The governor said 100 servers have been added to push through online applications, plus 2,000 state employees have been assigned to answer calls from those needing help. A new website has been added, and DeSantis said it has already received over 600,000 claims.
“There’s been a massive surge in resources,” he said.
The governor’s assertions, however, met skepticism.
“At the beginning of this week, @GovRonDeSantis said that Florida’s unemployment system was ’up to speed,’” tweeted U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Orlando. “4% of Floridians who have filed for unemployment have been paid. People are going hungry & facing eviction. We already passed $60 million to fix this broken system. Use it!”
DeSantis said the 100,000 checks sent to Floridians in need this week was nearly three times the 35,000 sent last week.
To speed up delivery of more checks, DeSantis said he waived three rules requiring applicants to show they are seeking employment, ending the mandated one-week delay in sending the check and dropping the need to re-certify that one remains unemployed. He said has ordered state officials to send the checks immediately.
“Where the rubber meets the road is we want people to get the assistance,” he said. “I’ve told the agency to get this out the door as fast as possible.”
He again reiterated that efforts to fix the overwhelmed process are working, noting that a partnership with FedEx to deliver paper benefits applications delivered 20,000 alone.
“It is our top economic priority,” the governor said. “The process has gotten better, there is still more work to do.”
The numbers of those being helped, however, pale compared to the need suggested by the data. In the past week, for example, close to another 200,000 Floridians have sought unemployment aid.
Absent from the governor’s initial, prepared remarks was mention of a task force meeting on Friday to map out a phased in return to business normalcy in the Sunshine State.
In answering questions, DeSantis did say he would work with local leaders in looking at the different business sectors.
“I’m going to work with them,” he said. “We do need to get to a next phase.”
But he gave no new details on next steps in outlining how that “next phase” would be accomplished.
On Thursday, the governor said he wants the panel, after consulting business leaders, elected officials and public health authorities, to hand him a blueprint for opening up Florida’s $1 trillion a year economy, fourth-largest in America.
The governor on Friday spoke from Fort Lauderdale where he toured a brand new walk-in testing center.
He was joined by Broward County Mayor Dale Holness, community leaders and Sheriff Gregory Tony, who DeSantis appointed last year after ousting predecessor Scott Israel over his handling of the Parkland school shooting in 2018. The governor was flanked by National Guard personnel wearing fatigues and blue surgical masks.
Speculation about a commercial reopening seemed jarring in juxtaposition to the backdrop as DeSantis spoke about escalating COVID-19 testing at the walk-in site at the Broward Urban League center and another location in Pompano Beach.
The governor said one out of every 96 Floridians has been tested, and he said the ratio “will be getting even better.”
“It’s exciting to be able to continue moving the ball forward on testing,” he said, saying the walk-in model will be replicated in other parts of the state. Potentially up next: Miami-Dade County locations.
VIDEO: Coronavirus vs the flu
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.