TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida reported nearly 9,000 new coronavirus cases Friday, shattering its previous daily record and prompting Gov. Ron DeSantis to pull back on his full-speed-ahead economic reopening strategy.
The spike in infections has framed Florida — a must-win election battleground for President Donald Trump — as a state that is losing control of its pandemic response even as it prepares to host Republican National Convention events, including the president’s speech, in August.
Florida on Friday morning reported 8,942 new coronavirus cases, a more than 60 percent increase from the previous daily high set June 23. The state’s rate of positive tests was nearly 15 percent, a multiple of the daily norm just a few weeks ago and an indication that the jump in cases isn’t tied to increased testing alone.
On Friday, DeSantis again declined to issue a statewide mask order even as localities such as Palm Beach, Leon and Hillsborough counties rushed to impose them.
“To do police and put criminal penalties on that is something that probably going to backfire,” DeSantis said. “We’re going to continue to put out the guidance and we’re going to trust people to make good judgment decisions.”
Further complicating the picture, and Trump’s chances in Florida, is a coronavirus-driven implosion of the state’s economy. On the same day the record case count was announced, state economists said Florida revenues had missed estimates by more than $ 1.6 billion over the past two months. That state’s unemployment rate is 14.5 percent.
For the Republican governor, it was all old news.
“Really, nothing has changed this week,” DeSantis told reporters in Fort Myers on Friday.
DeSantis has exhibited an exasperated defiance in recent weeks, lashing out at public health experts and pundits who expressed concern that Florida was getting back to business as usual too quickly.
“We are where we are,” the governor said Thursday when asked if the state would backtrack.
A day later, he backtracked.
Minutes after the Florida Department of Health reported the record daily case count, the DeSantis administration said it would ban the on-site consumption of alcohol in bars, which have been open since the beginning of June and which have taken some blame for the uptick in cases.
During his remarks, DeSantis said the state has adequate hospital capacity. And he emphasized that the median age of people infected has fallen from the mid-60s to 34, an age at which the sick are less likely to have symptoms or be hospitalized.
But the ground could be shifting quickly, some health experts said.
“Hospitalizations are increasing steadily,” said Jill Roberts of the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health. “Several hospitals are aware of this and are now discussing discontinuing elective surgeries for a while.”
Some hospitals are reversing visitor policies, intensive care admissions are increasing and concern over large public gatherings for the July Fourth holiday loom large, Roberts said.
The DeSantis strategy of relying on people to voluntarily wear masks has fallen short, and the state should get more aggressive, she said.
“Methods of control that were optional (social distancing, wearing masks) are clearly not working well with this age group and it is time for mandatory policies, especially those that require wearing masks in indoor environments,” she said in an email.
Democrats have pushed DeSantis to issue a statewide mask order, pointing to studies that show that state mask requirements have helped slow the spread of infection.
“If you mandate mask use, the Covid spread changes in those states,” said George Wehby, a professor at the University of Iowa. “It’s undebatable at this point that masks work. Mandating at the state level works.”
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat, accused DeSantis of playing politics.
“This is not about politics @GovRonDeSantis, this is about putting the health and safety of Floridians first,” Fried tweeted. “It’s time to take action, and require a mandatory mask mandate statewide.”
Against that complicated public health and political backdrop, GOP officials are planning the Jacksonville portion of the Republican National Convention in August.
“Governor Ron DeSantis and Mayor Lenny Curry have consistently prioritized the health of all Floridians throughout this global pandemic,” said Erin Isaac, a spokesperson for the RNC host committee. “As we plan for an event that is two months away, we continue to follow their lead and will always put the health of our guests and our city first.”
But the increase in infections has given an opening to Democrats DeSantis had dismissed during the early stages of the pandemic as he basked in Florida’s relatively low infection rate.
In March, at the early onset of the pandemic, DeSantis mandated a 14-day quarantine requirement for people coming to Florida from New York. Throughout the coronavirus outbreak, he trashed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his response.
New York now has one of the lowest infection rates in the country and Cuomo has flipped the script. This week, he on imposed travel restrictions from states with ballooning coronavirus numbers, including Florida. On Friday, he offered his state’s assistance.
“Our offer is open ended, however we can help,” Cuomo said. “We are in a position to provide any of the above, equipment, staff knowledge, ventilators, national guard assistance, whatever they need.”
“And yes,” he said, “we have all of the above.”