Image via News Service Florida
Gov. Ron DeSantis this week asked all Floridians to do what might have been unimaginable more than a month ago: Don’t leave the house, unless you absolutely have to.
The Republican governor resisted making the request for almost two weeks. But on Wednesday, DeSantis caved after a White House task force projected the novel coronavirus could cause at least 100,000 deaths with mitigation efforts in place and expanded social-distancing guidelines.
“Even though there are a lot of places in Florida that have very low infection rates, it makes sense to make this move now,” DeSantis told reporters.
As of Thursday night, the number of coronavirus cases in Florida had surged past 9,000. Cases had been confirmed in 60 of the state’s 67 counties, with the largest concentrations in heavily populated South Florida. The death toll had reached 144 people from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.
DeSantis’ unprecedented move to ask all Floridians to stay home to prevent the spread of the virus came with exceptions, including for people to “obtain or provide essential services or conduct essential activities.”
Under his executive order, people also are allowed to leave their homes to attend religious services in churches, synagogues and other types of houses of worship. Running, fishing and hunting within social-distancing guidelines are permitted.
“It’s less important what you do than how you do it,” DeSantis said. “Just think about it as, if you are engaging in an essential activity, are you doing it in a way that is limiting contacts, and if you are, you are probably going to be OK.”
‘NOT HANDLING THE NEEDS OF THE PEOPLE’
Paper applications for jobless benefits will soon be accepted as Florida’s rapidly growing ranks of out-of-work people have overwhelmed the online unemployment-compensation system.
DeSantis on Thursday expanded the way people can file applications for benefits while directing agency heads from throughout state government to find employees – many now working from home because of the coronavirus – to “beef up” unemployment-assistance call centers.
He also directed Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Ken Lawson to purchase software to add capacity to the online system.
“We’re in a situation where this system is not handling the needs of the people of Florida in an adequate way,” DeSantis told reporters at the Capitol. “So, we need to do more to be able to get relief to the people of Florida.”
DeSantis also issued an executive order to provide temporary relief from certain mortgage foreclosures and evictions for 45 days.
As of Thursday, the Department of Economic Opportunity had received more than 348,000 unemployment applications in the past two weeks, with an additional 2.1 million telephone calls for assistance in navigating the online system and the requirements to qualify for benefits.
In all of 2019, the Department of Economic Opportunity received just over 307,000 applications for benefits. And from August 2018 to February of this year, the call center fielded 2.39 million calls.
Democrats and labor leaders have repeatedly criticized the unemployment system – both for the technical problems and for relatively sparse state benefits. In calling for changes last week, the Florida AFL-CIO described the system as “badly broken.”
FEARS OF CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK BEHIND BARS
Prison workers, inmates and their loved ones have grown more fearful of a coronavirus outbreak in Florida’s prison system as they saw the number of workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 climb to 16 this week.
On the front lines, prison employees who are reporting to work are worried that they don’t have gloves, face masks and hand sanitizer to protect them from the highly contagious disease.
Mothers of inmates are frantically reaching out to state lawmakers for help.
“I’ve heard from a number of constituents who are worried that their loved ones are sitting ducks and that during a pandemic, they are going to get infected and that the state is not going to help them,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, told The News Service of Florida.
Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he is “getting inundated with requests from families to look into certain activities.”
Corrections officials, however, maintain that they are prepared to handle a potential outbreak.
Prisons are on lockdown, and all face-to-face visitations have been canceled. Prison officials are also telling inmates to wash their hands frequently, for at least 20 seconds, as health guidelines recommend. Inmates largely have been restricted to interacting with other prisoners housed within their dorms.
But Jim Baiardi, who leads the state corrections chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, said the Department of Corrections needs to come up with a plan in case a large number of correctional officers are infected. Prisons already have staffing issues, he said. And a pandemic could cause even more strain on staffing levels.
A South Florida prison educator, who asked to remain anonymous because he is afraid of being fired, said in an interview he is concerned about what would happen if hundreds of prisoners become infected at once.
“Where are they going to take the inmates to get better?” he said.
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