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TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis has refused to follow the lead of other states that have issued broad shutdowns to control the spread of the coronavirus, instead shifting the onus to outside travelers whom he blames for bringing COVID-19 into Florida.
DeSantis issued an executive order on Monday requiring anyone arriving on a flight from New York City and New Jersey to self-quarantine for two weeks. The order came as cities in the tourism-dependent state closed down beaches to throngs of spring breakers and more than a week after Disney World, Universal Studios and other major attractions in the state closed their gates to all visitors.
State officials have not responded to a request from The Associated Press for information on how many people diagnosed in Florida recently arrived from New York or had contact with someone who did. Officials from New York and New Jersey did not immediately comment on DeSantis' order.
A check of the online flight boards at Florida's six busiest airports Tuesday afternoon showed that about 40% of approximately 150 flights from the New York City area had been canceled Tuesday.
It was hard to gauge how much of that was because of DeSantis' order, however. Flight travel to all destinations across the country has plummeted due to the coronavirus outbreak: U.S. airlines have already cut most of their international flights and have announced plans to reduce service within the U.S. by up to 40% in April. More than 8,300 U.S. flights were canceled Tuesday, according to tracking service FlightAware.
Diane Cascio, a 55-year-old hair dresser from Fort Lauderdale, returned home from a visit with her mother and son in Long Island, New York, on a Tuesday afternoon JetBlue flight that carried only six passengers.
She said the passengers had to fill out forms required by Florida about their travels, health and plans, but that no medical professional screened her as she left the plane.
Cascio said she had learned about the quarantine order about an hour before departure and had been given the option of canceling, but she returned to the home she shares with her 31-year-old daughter.
"They didn't quarantine her. They quarantined me. There's a big Catch-22. ... So it's not really a true quarantine is it?" she said, also noting that New Yorkers are driving to Florida and not being forced to self-quarantine.
Florida has more than 1,300 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 17 deaths. About half the state's cases are in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. But testing remains limited and has yet to show any cases of the virus in a third of Florida's 67 counties. Another third have reported only a few.
The virus causes only minor flu-like symptoms in most people, who recover in a matter of weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death in some, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health problems. Those with severe cases are often only able to breathe with respirators, stressing the health care system's capacity to respond.
While moving to stem the possible infection from outside travelers, DeSantis said he wanted to avoid imposing a broad lockdown on the state's residents as California, New York and others have done. He said he would prefer that restrictive measures be put in place only in the hardest-hit counties.
"It would be a very blunt instrument," he said. "When you're ordering people to shelter in place you are consigning a number – probably hundreds of thousands of Floridians to lose their jobs."
DeSantis pointed to a survey of more than 6,600 businesses showing more than half have laid off more than 40,400 people all together. He also said requests for unemployment benefits have spiked, to 130,000 in four days last week, compared to 28,000 for the entire previous week.
To blunt the impact, the governor has asked President Donald Trump to declare Florida a disaster area, which would make the state eligible for federal aid. In a letter to Trump released late Monday, DeSantis wrote that Florida's "hospitals, medical facilities, and first responders are facing challenges rarely experienced before."
He said the state has already spent $208 million on related unemployment assistance, food stamps, disaster loans and mental health counseling.
Trump has not yet acted on the request.
DeSantis has ordered such statewide closures as bars and gyms, and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery. State parks have been closed. But some counties have gone further, closing not only nonessential businesses but also beaches, marinas and some other public areas.
In the absence of a statewide stay-at-home order, officials in some of Florida's harder-hit municipalities implemented their own. The mandate went into effect Tuesday morning for Miami Beach residents. Other Miami-Dade County municipalities, including Bay Harbor Islands and Bal Harbour Village, issued similar orders Monday night.
Gainesville and surrounding Alachua County, where the 36 confirmed cases include college students returning from Spring Break, also issued "stay at home" orders on Monday. Gainesville is the home of the University of Florida and a community college. All schools in Florida are closed.
"People should only be outside for exercise and attending to their necessities like shopping for groceries or visiting a pharmacy," Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said in a statement. "It won't be like this forever, but for now in a community like ours this makes the most sense."
Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale. Associated Press reporter Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale and Associated Press Airlines Writer David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.