The entire country has turned their attention to Florida as the next potential COVID-19 epicenter. The Florida Department of Health recorded 11,443 cases on July 3, which is the highest daily spike the state has seen thus far.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, R- Fla., attributes this spike to an increase in statewide testing and a higher positivity rate for younger Floridians. The median age for cases in March was between 50 and 60, but it has recently decreased dramatically.
The Florida governor has not mandated masks as a requirement statewide. Instead, he left the decision to counties and cities. “We’ve advised that’s something that could make an impact,” he said. “At the same time, to police and put criminal penalties on that is something that probably would backfire.”
Gov. DeSantis’s COVID-19 response has been blamed for the recent increase in cases. Critics blame his lack of initiative to mandate masks statewide and his refusal to halt reopening plans. “We’re not going back to closing things. I don’t think that that’s really what’s driving it. People going to a business is not what’s driving it,” he said.
Others support the governor’s response to leave much of the decision-making up to counties and cities. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected some areas of Florida while leaving others relatively unscathed. For example, Franklin County has only fourteen cases and no deaths. Supporters of the governor argue that counties with only a handful of cases, like Franklin, do not need to mandate masks.
On June 23, Alachua County commissioners unanimously voted to require masks throughout the county. Businesses must display a sign detailing the mask requirement. Employees and customers are required to wear masks but can remove them to eat or drink. Code enforcement officers will be enforcing the requirement based on complaints; those who refuse to wear a mask will face up to a $500 fine and a court appearance.
Alachua County considered both health and economic concerns in their decision. “We’ve seen a marked increase in folks expressing concerns within our community and when people are concerned, they don’t go shopping. They don’t go out and affect our economy, and so I think it’s not just public health anymore, it’s critical to the functioning of our economy,” said Alachua County Commissioner Ken Cornell.
Alachua County cases remain relatively low compared to the rest of the state, with 1,549 confirmed cases and 12 deaths. However, the return of thousands of University of Florida students in August may create a surge in cases.
UF’s reopening plan was approved by the state board of governors. An email sent to UF students announced that masks or facial coverings will be required on UF’s campus and all Gainesville facilities. UF created the Screen, Test & Protect initiative to keep students, faculty and Alachua County locals safe from COVID-19 and to prevent a potential spike.
Even with the recent surge in cases, the number of deaths in Florida remains comparatively low. According to the Center for Disease Control, New York has almost 400,000 cases and 31,891 deaths; New York has the highest death toll in the country. Florida has just over 200,000 cases, about half that of New York, with only 3,832 deaths.
Possible culprits of Florida’s surge in cases are reopened businesses and crowded protests. Derek Cummings, an infectious disease epidemiologist from the University of Florida, notes that Florida’s spike is different from other states’. Protests coincided with reopening policies that allowed for more person-to-person contact, although experts say the effects of protests will likely be smaller than the effects of opening bars and restaurants.
Featured image: Two members of the National Guard register people at a COVID-19 Mobile Testing Center in New Rochelle, NY in March 2020. (Unmodified photo by the National Guard used under a Creative Commons license. https://bit.ly/2YSb1cy)