Miami Mayor Francis Suarez is saying “I told you so” to Florida’s conservative governor.
Back in March, while Suarez was quarantined at home with an asymptomatic case of the coronavirus, he warned that his city could become the next New York, which was then the national epicenter of the pandemic.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was slow to issue a state-wide lockdown, which he finally did on April 1 amid significant pressure. The lockdown only lasted for about a month, and DeSantis said his state had proven more “draconian” social distancing policies were unnecessary to contain the spread.
“Everyone in the media was saying Florida would be like New York or Italy and that has not happened,” DeSantis said at an event with President Donald Trump in late April.
Trump called DeSantis’ pandemic response “spectacular.”
But earlier this month, Florida’s coronavirus cases began skyrocketing, and the state is now a national epicenter.
On Saturday, Florida recorded 9,585 new cases. The state’s daily infections have seen a five-fold increase over the last two weeks, The New York Times reported Sunday. And the percentage of positive tests has tripled since May — clear evidence of a surging infection rate.
Suarez told Business Insider in a Monday interview that the spike in Florida’s cases resulted from the state’s early reopening and widespread noncompliance with social distancing recommendations. He argued that his more cautious approach to reopening has helped Miami’s infection rate grow more slowly than elsewhere in the state.
“People thought this was over,” said Suarez, a registered Republican. “I can’t speak for all Floridians, but … I was the last city to open in Florida and I got criticized for it and I think now people see the wisdom in our more conservative approach.”
Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease specialist at Florida International University who is advising both Suarez and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez on their pandemic responses, told Business Insider that DeSantis has “facilitated” the resurgence of the virus in his state.
“[DeSantis] chose to think of the virus as not being as serious as the economic problem,” Marty said in a Tuesday interview. “His actions speak very loudly that he did not realize that not taking the virus seriously will invariably lead to a worse economic fallout than taking it seriously and doing it right in the first place.”
DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.
Embracing face masks while closing bars and beaches
Suarez says he’s “trying to be surgical” in his approach to containing the pandemic through policy, but is prepared to re-institute a city-wide lockdown if hospitals near a “critical place.”
On June 25, Suarez implemented a new order requiring everyone in the city of Miami to wear face masks in public spaces or face a civil fine between $50 and $500. Those who violate the order several times can be arrested, but the city is currently focused on raising awareness and distributing free masks.
The mayor compared wearing a face covering, which studies have shown significantly reduces the virus’ spread, to wearing a seat belt.
“If you wear a seat belt, it doesn’t ensure that you’re not going to get seriously hurt if you have a car accident, but it improves your chances and it’s not a very difficult thing to do,” he said.
Dr. Marty, who said she mentioned the seatbelt analogy to Suarez, said stop signs are even more comparable to face masks because they protect both the driver and others in the vicinity.
Echoing a host of public health experts, Suarez is calling on Florida to implement a state-wide mask mandate, although he said he hasn’t spoken about the issue directly with the governor.
The mayor said Trump’s ongoing refusal to wear a mask and set a national example has “without a doubt” undermined his efforts to encourage mask-wearing. Marty agreed that “leaders set the tone” when it comes to normalizing these practices and added that she’s encouraged by Vice President Mike Pence, who has previously flouted social distancing recommendations but has recently begun calling for increased mask-wearing.
Marty also says masks should be mandatory state-wide in public indoor places and heavily trafficked outdoor places for the next month in order to reduce infections to a level at which contact tracing, testing, and isolation can effectively contain the virus.
“If we don’t do that, we’re heading towards another lockdown,” she warned, adding that numbers over the next week will be crucial in determining whether Florida will need to re-institute shutdowns.
Florida has already had to reverse aspects of its reopening.
Last Friday, state officials banned the sale of alcohol at bars after reopening them in May. And officials announced on Sunday that beaches in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Palm Beach will be closed for Fourth of July weekend.
“As we continue to see more COVID-19 positive test results among young adults and rising hospitalizations, I have decided that the only prudent thing to do to tamp down this recent uptick is to crack down on recreational activities that put our overall community at higher risk,” Mayor Gimenez said in a press release.
Marty, who advised Gimenez in his decision to close beaches, said that particular move was designed to have “a maximal public health impact and a minimal economic impact,” while sending a warning to the public.
Closing beaches and other public parks could encourage people to gather in arguably more unsafe places, including private homes and backyards. Marty said officials have considered those risks and are rolling out public messaging to raise awareness about social distancing in private spaces.
A surge among young people
The virus is spreading most aggressively among young Floridians.
The governor announced last week that a staggering 20% of residents between 25 and 34 years old are testing positive for Covid-19.
But this comes after DeSantis repeatedly downplayed the risk the virus poses to younger people. He falsely claimed on April 9 that not a single person in the US below the age of 25 had died from Covid-19. In fact, the CDC reported that five people under 25 had been killed by the virus at that point.
And when the state reopened bars and restaurants in May, it welcomed young people back into environments where the virus can easily spread.
Suarez said he’s seeing lots of younger people flouting the rules. He rolled out new penalties on Monday for businesses that don’t comply with social distancing policies.
“In Miami, we see a lot of restaurants that are acting like bars, we see people out on boats that are out partying all the time in violation of the social distancing rules, we know there are a lot of house parties where that’s happening as well,” Suarez said. “People just think that they’re invincible when they’re younger.”
Public health officials warn that the longterm effects of the virus remain largely unknown and even young people are seeing very severe cases of Covid-19. And they stress that younger people are unwittingly spreading the virus to older and more vulnerable people.
“There’s a lot of evidence of people bringing it home, who are younger, into households and the entire household getting sick,” Suarez said.
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