Florida governor’s coronavirus dilemma: health vs. economy

Tamara Lush
Associated Press

St. Petersburg, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been walking a tightrope for weeks during the coronavirus crisis, trying to protect both residents vulnerable to the virus and the cratering economy in a state of 21 million people.

His dilemma is a clear example of the conundrum facing the president of the United States and governors across the nation: His state has both an enormous population — a large percentage of which is old and particularly vulnerable to the virus — and a thriving economy whose collapse could result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.

FILE- In this March 23, 20202 file photo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, center front, arrives at a mobile testing site for a press conference Monday, March 23, 2020, in The Villages, Fla.

The success or failure of the Republican governor’s decisions could have major consequences for the national economic recovery, not to mention the presidential election. No single state is more central to President Donald Trump’s reelection.

Critics say DeSantis is relying too heavily on how his actions could reflect on the president – or affect his relationship with Trump.

“I don’t think Ron DeSantis makes decisions without consulting with the president, or those close to the president,” said State Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando.

Like Trump, DeSantis has been resistant to impose a statewide shutdown as New York, California and Illinois have done. Instead, the governor — in his second year in office — has pushed an incremental approach, suggesting that restrictive measures be put in place only in the hardest-hit counties. To do otherwise, he said, could cost hundreds of thousands of Floridians their jobs. Nearly a third of Florida’s counties have had no cases of COVID-19, but most are small and rural.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.

DeSantis’ most controversial decision came earlier this week, when he issued an executive order requiring anyone coming into the state from the greater New York area — which has seen the nation’s biggest virus spike – to self-isolate for 14 days. Florida officials have said most of the people in the state who have contracted the virus recently traveled elsewhere or had contact with others who had.

The ties between Florida and New York run deep. New Yorkers are the biggest source of new Floridians. In 2018, the most recent year for which numbers are available, more than 63,000 New Yorkers migrated to the Sunshine State, close to double the residents of the next closest state, neighboring Georgia. On Tuesday, the federal government implemented the same order nationwide for those traveling from the greater New York City area.

The governor has taken some measures, closing parks, bars and gyms; restricting visitations to nursing homes; and limiting restaurants to takeout and delivery. He also eventually decided to close beaches in two South Florida counties. Still, he has left many decisions up to counties and cities, an approach that has garnered praise, confusion and derision.

“Coronavirus is killing us in Florida, Gov. DeSantis. Act like you give a damn,” the Miami Herald declared on its editorial page over the weekend.

Eskamani has joined Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried in calling for a statewide shutdown.

“We can’t solve the economic health crisis without fixing the public health crisis,” Eskamani said.

Business owners, meanwhile, are trying to keep track of the often-conflicting directives from DeSantis, as he tries to keep the economy as active as possible, and officials in Miami-Dade, Orlando and other counties who have ordered all but “essential” businesses to shut down.

“We have to flatten the curve to restore consumer confidence, then get back to business,” said Alex Marin, co-owner of the Hungry Pants restaurant in Orlando. “We can’t sail a sailboat when there’s no wind in the sails, so we’re just going to sit in the water until then.”