Coronavirus cases are surging, local officials are discussing precautions about masks and vaccines and Gov. Ron DeSantis is scrambling to protect personal choice — it feels like Florida has been here before.
The Delta variant of the coronavirus continues to sweep across the state and the nation, with Florida responsible for about one in five of the country's new COVID-19 cases in recent days, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At least two counties that have seen sharp upticks in cases, Leon and Orange, issued requirements this week for county employees to be vaccinated.
"This is very simple and very serious. As an employer, we are required to provide a safe work environment for employees, and unvaccinated employees pose a significant risk to spread the virus," Leon County Administrator Vince Long said in a memo distributed to employees.
In addition to requiring vaccinations for county workers, Orange County is mandating that employees wear masks in indoor county facilities. County Mayor Jerry Demings also urged residents to wear masks in public indoor settings.
Demings declared a local state of emergency Wednesday, July 28, while announcing 1,371 new coronavirus cases on the day, which he said was an "all-time high."
The CDC issued new guidelines last week advising that all people, including those who are fully vaccinated, wear masks in areas of "substantial or high" transmission. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters that "new science related to the Delta variant" prompted the change.
While local leaders grapple with ways to boost lagging vaccination rates, data showed that just 48.7 percent of the state's population was fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, July 28. —RD
FIDDLING WHILE ROME BURNS
The state's top executive, who seems concerned with just about everything but the state's dire coronavirus outbreak, was in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 28, to speak at a conservative policy conference. In his speech at the American Legislative Exchange Council, DeSantis mocked the CDC's recent recommendations of face masks for all individuals gathered indoors.
"Did you not get the CDC's memo? I don't see you complying," DeSantis said to the cheers of the 400-plus attendees.
He went on to rail against the idea of mandates from the government to stem the spread of coronavirus.
"It is very important that we say unequivocally 'no to lockdowns, no to school closures, no to restrictions and no to mandates,'" he said.
DeSantis also expressed fear of a "Faucian dystopia," a reference to federal coronavirus response head Dr. Anthony Fauci. DeSantis has previously railed against the top doc, going so far as to sell branded campaign merch that mocks Fauci's masking recommendations.
The speech came as Orange County declared a state of emergency over the rapid spread of the virus. At press time, Florida was home to one in every five new coronavirus cases in the United States. —AG
Local hospital groups are reeling due to the ongoing surge of COVID-19 cases in Florida. Citing the uptick in coronavirus cases being handled by the hospital system, AdventHealth last week updated their operating procedures to "black status," under which all non-emergency surgeries are indefinitely postponed.
In a statement shared with Orlando Weekly Thursday, July 29, AdventHealth noted that they were seeing well beyond their former January peak of coronavirus hospitalizations. The hospital hopes to focus resources on treatment and containment of those effected by the virus in Central Florida.
"Cases continue to rise sharply with no sign that the surge is beginning to decelerate," said Dr. Neil Finkler, chief clinical officer of AdventHealth's Central Florida Division. "This important step will help us create more resources for our clinical teams, and ensure that we can continue to care for our community."
On the morning of this announcement, DeSantis held a news conference in Cape Coral where he doubled down on his promises to stop any mandates aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. —AG
GLOVES OFF OVER SCHOOL MASKING
Last week, DeSantis began floating the idea of calling a special legislative session if the federal government tried to mandate masks for school children — but it was local officials who made the first such move. The Broward County School Board last week voted to mandate masks for students, but most other districts throughout the state aren't expected to adopt similar policies.
DeSantis then issued an executive order Friday, July 30, directing the Florida Department of Education and the Department of Health to issue emergency rules protecting the rights of parents to make decisions about children wearing masks. (Editor's note: As we went to press on Monday, Broward County reversed their decision in response to the executive order.)
"I have young kids. My wife and I are not going to do the mask thing with the kids," DeSantis said during an event at Two Meatballs in the Kitchen restaurant in Cape Coral. "We never have. I want to see my kids smiling. I want them having fun."
The federal government has not mandated masks in schools, but the CDC's guidance last Tuesday recommended that teachers, students and school staff members mask up, as Florida sees major increases in COVID-19 because of the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus. The Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics on Thursday called for the "universal" use of masks in schools.
In part, the new executive order directs state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to withhold funds to "noncompliant" school boards that impose mask requirements.
DeSantis' executive order requires the state Department of Education and the Florida Department of Health to work together to ensure COVID-19 safety protocols in schools don't "violate Floridians' constitutional freedoms" or parents' rights to make health care decisions for their children.
The order directs the state agencies to protect "children with disabilities or health conditions who would be harmed by certain protocols such as face masking requirements."
The Florida Education Association is opposing the governor's executive order.
"Unfortunately, through his words and actions, Gov. DeSantis has made clear he does not respect the freedom of locally elected officials to do what they feel is best for their communities," the statewide teachers union said in a statement. —RD
Florida congressional representative and purported sex pest Rep. Matt Gaetz mocked the Delta variant of COVID-19 as it raged through his home state. At a rally in Brevard County on Saturday, July 31, Gaetz poked fun at masking recommendations while Florida set new highs for daily numbers of cases and hospitalizations.
Speaking to a maskless crowd at the Hilton Melbourne Beach Oceanfront hotel for his "Florida Man Freedom Tour," Gaetz downplayed the threat of the virus that is rampaging through the area.
Gaetz told the crowd he had the "Florida variant," whose symptoms include "hunting, fishing and hugging your family."
For the record, a quick Google image search of "Matt Gaetz holding gun" returns no relevant results. The same definitely can't be said of his partner in conservative trolling Marjorie Taylor Greene.
He updated the applause line a bit for a later speech in Largo, saying that the variant gave him freedom.
At the first rally, Gaetz called Dr. Anthony Fauci a "sniveling little twit" before reviving an ancient political phrase to discuss the CDC's change of heart on face mask policy: He said the agency was "flip-flopping" on its masking stance (as opposed to responding to the unmitigated spread in places like Florida).
At the same time that Gaetz was holding his rally, Florida was sharing record-breaking COVID-19 numbers. The state reported a new high in coronavirus cases on Saturday, with over 21,000 infections recorded the day prior. On Sunday, the state reported a new high for hospitalizations with 10,207 people across the state admitted for coronavirus complications. —AG
HARD PASS ON PASSPORTS
The Florida Department of Health last week published a proposed rule that would carry out a new law allowing the state to levy $5,000 fines against businesses, government agencies and educational institutions that violate a ban on so-called COVID-19 "vaccine passports."
The proposed rule also would require that the fines be paid within 30 days unless indicated otherwise in a final order.
DeSantis has made a priority of blocking businesses and other entities from requiring people to show proof of vaccination — the concept known as vaccine passports. DeSantis issued an executive order on the issue in April, and the Legislature subsequently passed a bill putting the ban in state law.
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the ban, as the company says it should be able to require passengers to show proof of vaccination. The Department of Health published the proposed rule as the numbers of COVID-19 infections in the state spiral upward because of the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus. —RD