Recent days have marked a major turning point for the state, where Gov. Ron DeSantis — a Republican loyal to President Donald Trump — confirmed that the number of new cases had been rising because of a surge in cases, not because of increased testing. Florida on Monday confirmed it had recorded 100,000 positive test results for Covid-19 since the pandemic began.
A trade group representing the state’s largest industry, tourism, urged officials on Monday to crack down on dozens of eateries and bars that have failed to embrace capacity restrictions and social distancing guidelines — a remarkable invitation to pursue its own members.
“We think it’s time to come down on them,” Carol Dover, the president of the powerful Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said in an interview. “We don’t have any sort of police powers or anything, and it’s not our intent of making things harder, but we’ve got to start following the rules.”
The heightened urgency comes as the state saw its largest daily increase in new infections yet over the weekend, with the Florida Department of Health reporting 4,671 confirmed cases on Saturday. That number dropped on Sunday, with the state reporting only 2,779 new cases, though it’s still more than double the number of new cases being reported daily in early April, when DeSantis reluctantly implemented a statewide shelter-in-place order.
The state started its reopening in early May, but Florida’s number of coronavirus cases didn’t begin to climb significantly until earlier this month. The rate of positive tests compared to the number of overall tests conducted has also climbed, ruling out the possibility that the increase in cases is simply the result of more testing — an argument the White House has put forward, as did DeSantis until last weekend.
The average rate of positive test results in Florida has nearly doubled over the past two weeks, rising from 5 percent to 9.7 percent, according to an analysis of figures released on Monday. The vast majority of the positive test results in the past week have been from young people, and many of them were infected in bars where social distancing guidelines were ignored, the state said.
DeSantis has taken a light-handed approach to mitigation throughout the pandemic and, for the most part, allows locals official to make decisions about the best response. Restaurants are still required to operate dining rooms at 50 percent capacity, there are social distancing rules for bars and a mask mandate is in place for staff at salons.
“We are obviously extremely concerned,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, a Republican, said in an interview on CNN, noting that his city would not be moving into its third phase of reopening because of the increase in cases. The city’s positivity rate nearly doubled from around 8 percent positive to 14 percent over the last week.
GOP Sen. Rick Scott, calling mitigation measures like wearing a face covering and social distancing “pretty basic,” warned Floridians that the virus is “still deadly” and reiterated that it was imperative to stay focused on the continued threat.
“First off, I mean, we clearly haven’t beat it so I think everybody is concerned when they read about the cases, the number of cases up,” Scott told CNBC on Monday morning, adding later that “we’re not out of the woods — we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
“We’ve got to — every one of us — to take this seriously, wear your mask, social distance. Don’t go to places you don’t have to go to,” he continued.
Hospitalizations for Covid-19 are also up, but fatalities and ICU availability, which tend to lag behind diagnoses, have not yet surged to the point of generating major concern.
“We’re nowhere near yet sort of a surge that would truly challenge our hospital capacity,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, a Democrat, said in an interview on CNN. “But we can’t wait until we get to those points to start being concerned and acting accordingly.”
The surge has kicked off a mobilization to better enforce existing coronavirus restrictions, as photos and videos emerge of crowded bars and restaurants, and a push to emphasize that young people are not immune to the virus.
On Saturday, DeSantis said that the state is “up for the challenge” of bringing those numbers down and would step up enforcement of existing restrictions, a pledge Gelber echoed.
“It’s painful, because these are members of a wonderful industry that has really suffered mightily during this, but there’s just not another option. We can’t let this trajectory continue to the point where we have to shutter in place at home again,” he argued. Gelber said he would be reaching out not only to restaurants and bars, but also hotels and places of worship “to urge them to do a little bit better or a lot better.”
But the mayor also contended that “we probably have the tools to avoid” needing to shutter the city a second time, citing face masks, social distancing and basic hygiene.