A new Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found that 72% of Floridians don’t want to ‘loosen social distancing rules’ at the end of April
Florida leaders plowed ahead Wednesday with plans to end a statewide lockdown that was imposed to contain the coronavirus, even as new polling shows many Floridians are concerned about easing restrictions too quickly.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found that 72% of Floridians don’t want to "loosen social distancing rules" at the end of April, when the governor’s lockdown order prohibiting residents from leaving home except for essential services and activities is set to expire.
Additionally, 76% of Floridians believe the economy only should reopen when public health officials say it is safe, according to the poll. Health officials have warned that reopening too soon could risk another wave of infections and deaths.
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And 63% of those surveyed said that if social distancing restrictions are eased they would be uncomfortable going back to work without widespread testing for the virus.
Despite such skepticism, more Florida cities and counties — including Sarasota County — made the call to reopen beaches this week and the Re-Open Florida Task Force convened by Gov. Ron DeSantis held another series of meetings Wednesday.
"I think we have a responsibility to all be creative, innovate; let’s show we can get people back to work," DeSantis told task force members Wednesday.
The Quinnipiac poll found 50% of Floridians approve of how DeSantis has handled the coronavirus crisis so far, and 41% disapprove, although 61% think he "could have responded sooner."
The governor has aggressively defended his push to reopen, noting that the state’s health care system has not been overwhelmed by the virus but the economy has been decimated by the lockdown.
Florida Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew told task force members Wednesday that roughly 2,200 people were hospitalized statewide for COVID-19 and about 23,000 hospital beds were sitting empty.
The governor’s task force is exploring how to reopen businesses large and small, with Wednesday’s meetings touching on everything from theme parks to barber shops and professional sports teams.
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In addition to launching an effort to reopen the economy, DeSantis also is convening school leaders to discuss how to reopen campuses, and big changes are likely when students return.
Distance learning could remain a major part of school programs at the K-12 and university levels, with some students continuing to stay away from campuses because of the health risk to themselves or loved ones. Schools also are working on plans to boost sanitation efforts and impose social distancing requirements on students and staff.
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran acknowledged Wednesday that there may be concerns about sending students back to school who live with caregivers who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
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"We want to open up schools and get kids in the best learning environment that we know works the best," Corcoran said. "But we also know the hybrid model is gonna be a factor and you’re gonna have, even if we open up, you’re gonna have kids ... where they might be with their grandparents or their parents and they might have an underlying condition or might be in a vulnerable age group and having their kid go to school where there could be asymptomatic kids is gonna cause them too much stress."
With the task force working toward a Friday deadline to provide feedback on how to safely end the statewide lockdown, the Florida Department of Health reported another 707 coronavirus cases Wednesday and 60 more deaths. The state had confirmed 28,576 total cases and 927 deaths as of Wednesday evening.
There were 302 cases in Sarasota County and 31 deaths, including a 69-year-old woman whose death was reported Wednesday morning. There were 448 cases in Manatee County and 34 deaths.
Sarasota Memorial Hospital reported Wednesday that two more employees had tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the total to 21. The hospital had 35 COVID-19 patients Wednesday. It had discharged 75 people who were treated for the disease, while 17 COVID-19 patients had died.
The outbreak could wane over the summer as more testing is done and some level of social distancing continues to be the norm, but the virus is likely to still be around when the next school year kicks off.
School leaders said they’re working to ensure schools can operate safely by instituting new health protocols, while also preparing to tackle everything from the mental stresses caused by the virus to the learning losses children may have suffered.
Schools are closed for the rest of the school year, but education leaders are making plans to open at the end of the summer for the new school year.
"We know the importance of opening the schools because that also opens up the support that families need so they can return to work," said Jacob Oliva, the chancellor in the Department of Education’s Division of Public Schools.
College and university officials also are trying to figure out how to reopen. Campus life could be very different when that happens.
"Social distancing policies and other protections for students and employees will become the norm for the foreseeable future," said Syd Kitson, the chair of the board overseeing Florida’s university system.
DeSantis closed schools on March 13 and ordered a statewide lockdown in early April, well after many other states. Now he is pushing for Florida to be one of the first states to reopen.
There is considerable debate over when to end the coronavirus lockdowns, with health experts warning that easing up on restrictions too quickly could lead to another wave of infections and deaths. Leading Florida Democrats have said the state should not reopen until more testing is available.
But DeSantis has repeatedly noted that the state’s health care system has not been overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients and the number of daily infections appears to be leveling off in arguing for an end to Florida’s lockdown.
During a press conference Wednesday, DeSantis also emphasized that the outbreak is less severe in much of the state. He noted that Hillsborough and Orange counties combined — two of the most populous in the state — had just 109 COVID-19 patients in the hospital. He also pointed to new case data for those counties: just four Tuesday in Hillsborough, and 24 in Orange.
"Florida’s right now at this point better than anybody predicted we could be," DeSantis said. "Now obviously we have a lot more work to do but I do think that it’s worth pointing out the facts and pointing out where we actually stand, which is contrary to some concocted narratives that we’ve seen over the past month."
The Re-Open Florida Task Force includes input from a range of industries that are pushing to end state restrictions.
The task force’s tourism-focused working group continued to explore how to restart the state’s largest industry Wednesday.
Universal Orlando Resort CEO John Sprouls spoke about using technology to have virtual lines, implementing staggered seating on rides and limiting attendance when the park opens to facilitate social distancing. Matthew Caldwell, president and CEO of the Florida Panthers hockey team, said he still hopes to finish the NHL season, with games beginning again over the summer and possibly being played without fans.
A big question is when beaches, a key draw that will be critical to reviving the tourism industry, can fully reopen.
Cities and counties have started to reopen beaches around the state, but most are keeping certain restrictions in place. Sarasota County commissioners voted Wednesday to reopen beaches, but only for biking, running, walking, swimming and surfing. Charlotte County also is opening beaches in Englewood and Port Charlotte.
Hotel operators involved with the task force say they need the beaches open to revive their businesses.
But crowds gathering on Florida beaches have drawn national attention and derision in recent weeks, and there are still big concerns that beach gatherings could spark more virus transmissions.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry defended his decision to reopen beaches over the weekend with restrictions such as no sun bathing or beach chairs. Images of crowds on the beaches led to a trending Twitter hashtag #FloridaMorons.
Curry said Wednesday during a task force working group meeting that his community’s beaches were not that crowded, adding that the crowds that did arrive "really thinned out" after the first day.
"A dictator style ‘we’re going to come arrest you’ I don’t believe is the way forward," he said.
Among the other findings from the Quinnipiac poll:
• 79% of Floridians are concerned that they or someone in their family could contract the coronavirus.
• 81% of Floridians believe people should wear face masks or coverings in stores.
• 40% of Floridians said they feel "financially strapped" because of the coronavirus crisis and 21% said they have lost their job or been furloughed.
Tallahassee Democrat reporter Jeffrey Schweers contributed to this report.