By Jim Turner, Christine Sexton The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — With hundreds of thousands of workers filing unemployment claims and businesses shuttered across the state, a task force created by Gov. Ron DeSantis began discussing ways Monday to revive the state’s economy from the coronavirus crisis.
Officials from businesses such as Disney World, Universal Orlando, Florida Power & Light, AT&T, Tampa General Hospital, Raymond James Financial Services and Lockheed Martin, along with county mayors from Southeast Florida and state elected Republican leaders, will spend the week as the task force’s executive committee to develop plans to reopen the economy.
DeSantis said in a conference call the goal is to not just get the state back on its feet, but “resurging back to where we all want to be.”
However, the push to get businesses back open comes as public-health experts have warned social distancing restrictions should not be lifted until the numbers of new infections have slowed or stopped and there is widespread immunity.
The business leaders and elected officials on the task force will oversee three working groups that will meet daily to consider how to revive businesses, from “low” risk occupations such as finance, government and agriculture, to more high-risk fields that include tourism, restaurants, sports, retail stores and transportation.
“We understand the magnitude and the responsibility of the decisions that need to be made here,” said task force member Syd Kitson, a developer who also is chairman of the state university system’s Board of Governors. “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.”
Crediting Floridians for following stay-at-home and physical-distancing recommendations, DeSantis used the meeting Monday of the Re-Open Florida Task Force to take digs at “the media and the expert class” for predicting Florida’s hospitals would be full and at governors of other states for implementing “ham-fisted” directives. DeSantis said stay-at-home orders in other states have been counterproductive by allowing people to be harassed just for being outside in their driveways or planting flowers.
But DeSantis also drew fire from Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat on the state Cabinet. She said DeSantis didn’t mention agriculture during the conference call and that her omission from the task force is “sadly more of the same politics over state from the governor.”
“I was not asked to serve alongside my fellow Cabinet members on the task force, which has no voice on its membership representing Florida’s $137 billion agriculture industry,” Fried said in a statement issued Monday afternoon. “That is deeply concerning given the impacts of COVID-19 on Florida’s second- largest industry and given the progress my team has made working with federal, state, local, and retail partners to reduce negative impacts to Florida agriculture.”
Seeking to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the deadly respiratory disease cause by the coronavirus, DeSantis issued an executive order March 20 that closed restaurant dining rooms and gyms. Less than two weeks later he limited “movement to only essential services and activities.”
A key part of the task force’s discussions will be a need to make accurate testing more readily available for COVID-19. Such testing could help restore confidence so people will dine out, shop in crowded locations or travel after businesses reopen.
“This is a long-term issue for us until we get a vaccine,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said. “I look forward to opening up our economy because we need to get Florida moving again.”
The recent emphasis in Florida has been determining who is suffering from the disease.
But now the DeSantis administration wants to begin testing for COVID-19 antibodies, which will reveal who has had the virus.
DeSantis said Monday at the meeting that he expects the state to receive 100,000 antibody detection tests this week.
“I think it seems like the evidence is pretty clear that there is a much broader group of people who have had this thing,” DeSantis said, referring to recent studies in Boston and Santa Clara, Calif., that showed asymptomatic people tested positive.
It’s key information to have as the panel considers how to reopen the state because people with antibodies in their blood have cells able to fight the infection.
Shane Strum, DeSantis’ chief of staff, said a big issue for the task force will be reopening restaurants.
“Do you start with opening outside dining again? Do you look at doing 25 or 50 percent of restaurant occupancy? And if you do that, you still have to continue to do social distancing,” Strum said.
Strum also noted the governor’s office has been getting calls about restarting elective surgeries while the state continues to deal with shortages of personal-protective equipment for medical procedures.
DeSantis spent time Monday lauding his administration’s efforts amid the pandemic, including how it has addressed the spread of the disease in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Nearly 24 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths involve residents or staff members of long-term care facilities.
DeSantis touted efforts such as the state last month shutting off visitation at nursing homes and encouraging screening of staff.
“That is something we know there is a vulnerability there with the virus. So we wanted to make sure we did that very early. As we go into this next phase, we are going to continue to do a lot of the things that we are doing for the vulnerable population,” DeSantis said. “And, in fact, we are already looking at ways we can do even more to have a real targeted effort for those folks who are most vulnerable to COVID-19.”
Some of those targeted efforts include sending four-member strike teams, headed by the Florida National Guard, to test nursing home residents and staff for COVID-19.
Jared Moskowitz, the director of the state Division of Emergency Management, said Monday that in the next two days the state would be “making a major push to long term care facilities,” sending 5 million face masks, 200,000 face shields and 500,000 gloves to the facilities.