By Renzo Downey
April 21, 2020
Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Re-Open Florida Task Force will make COVID-19 testing the driving tool to gauge society’s readiness to reopen.
During the task force’s first meeting, held by teleconference, the administration framed a smooth economic recovery as the leading goal of the panel.
The state expects to receive a shipment of 100,000 federally-approved antibody tests, produced in China, to arrive this week. DeSantis ordered Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz to order more as they become available.
Initially, the Governor plans to start random sampling in hot spots like South Florida that could reveal how many people unknowingly contracted the virus.
One group that screens the state’s blood supply will be testing donated blood for COVID-19 virus antibodies, Surgeon General Scott Rivkees said. Hotels hope to test visitors as they check in but fear false negatives could cause panic and an unnecessary response.
Antibody testing, which would uncover the extent of people who had mild or no symptoms, would help restore confidence in Floridians to participate in the economy, DeSantis said. Restaurants and travel could open up again, but without testing and confidence, a reopening would be ineffective.
“You had a lot of stuff being said in March about this virus, which is a serious pathogen, but I think it was really where people were legitimately just frightened to the dickens,” he said.
And while some in the media and health experts predicted Florida’s outbreak could be worse than New York’s, he added, the state bounded together to flatten the curve and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.
The task force and breakout groups, divided by the height of risk to each industry, will meet each day this week and return the first round of findings Friday. On Saturday, the Governor said the task force’s immediate priority will be to present recommendations for the short term, with three stages corresponding to the White House’s “Opening Up America Again” framework.
However, public health experts have emphasized the need to maintain social distancing practices until the rate of new infections slow down or until the development of a vaccine, months or years away. And ahead of the teleconference, the Florida Democratic Party, in their own call, asked that DeSantis and President Donald Trump elevate the role of health experts in developing plans to reduce social distancing requirements.
“Public health experts have been crystal clear: We need national mass testing before we can relax social distancing,” said Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo.
Following the Governor’s task force introduction, the Florida Chamber of Commerce gave a presentation on the state’s economic outlook and the vulnerability of major industries. DeSantis’ Chief of Staff, Shane Strum, stressed the importance of those updates at the conclusion of the call.
According to the Chamber’s worst-case scenario, Florida’s economy might not recover until the second quarter of 2024. At best, all the state’s economic losses would be picked up by the end of this year.
The state’s reopening would require a “surgical” response, Chamber President and CEO Mark Wilson said, with 20% of the state’s tax receipts coming from tourism, 79% of general revenue coming from sales tax and the impending hurricane season just over a month away. Additionally, with a disproportionately elderly population, the state would need to protect those residents.
“I hope you will please consider that the whole world is watching us,” Wilson said. “They are watching Florida and they’re looking for your recommendations.”
The extensive panel includes Lt. Gov. Jeanette Núñez, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Senate President Bill Galvano, House Speaker José Oliva, President-Designate Wilton Simpson, Speaker-Designate Chris Sprowls and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. South Florida county mayors Carlos Giménez of Miami-Dade, Dale Holness of Broward and Dave Kerner of Palm Beach are other government officials on the panel.
Officials from business interests — including Jamal Sowell of Enterprise Florida and executives from Disney, Universal Resorts, AT&T, Florida Power and Light, the Florida Bankers Association, Raymond James Financial, Lockheed Martin and Publix — are also on the task force. Syd Kitson, president of the Florida Board of Governors, and John Couris, president and CEO of Tampa General Hospital, are also on the panel.
“As it relates to the university system, we have some of the best scientific and medical minds in the world, and we plan to use them to help formulate a plan that will help keep our students, our faculty, our administrators and support teams safe but at the same time provide a world-class education for our students,” Kitson said.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the state’s lone statewide-elected Democrat, said her exclusion from the panel despite fellow Cabinet members Patronis and Moody’s presence was “the same politics over state” on the part of DeSantis. The Governor did not mention agriculture in the panel’s first meeting.
“That is deeply concerning given the impacts of COVID-19 on Florida’s second largest industry, and given the progress my team had made working with federal, state, local, and retail partners to reduce negative impacts on Florida agriculture,” she said in a statement.
According to the Chamber of Commerce’s report, the agriculture industry is one of the lowest industries at risk of job loss. However the food industry, also under Fried’s purview and grouped together with accommodations and tourism under the Chamber’s analysis, was the industry most at risk.
The state Democratic Party joined Fried in a statement of their own.
“Governor DeSantis included the usual suspects of campaign donors and DeSantis loyalists on his task force, but he deliberately overlooked the only statewide Democratic elected official and cabinet member,” Rizzo said.