President Donald Trump declared Florida a disaster area Wednesday because of the new coronavirus outbreak, while another of the state’s largest metropolitan areas moved toward a near-shutdown.
The president acted a day after Gov. Ron DeSantis requested the declaration, becoming the sixth state to receive one because of the virus. The move makes the state eligible for federal funding for emergency protective measures and crisis counseling.
The declaration came shortly after the two major counties in the Tampa Bay area, Hillsborough and Pinellas, moved to impose lockdown orders. Gov. Ron DeSantis has refused to impose a statewide lockdown like California, New York, Illinois and other states have done, saying the mostly smaller counties that have no or few confirmed cases should not have the same restrictions that the metropolitan areas are imposing.
State Democrats have called on the Republican governor to impose a statewide lockdown, but he said again that he doesn’t believe that all areas in such a large state need the same approach.
“There are parts of the state where you have more sporadic cases and to order someone to not earn a paycheck when them going to work is not having any effect on what we are doing with the virus, that is something that I think is inappropriate,” DeSantis said.
As DeSantis left a meeting with reporters in his office Wednesday, the governor noted that his pregnant wife and their two children felt ill in January, so he is now wondering if they had COVID-19. He said only when a test is available to see who had the disease with no or few symptoms will the nation know exactly how contagious and deadly it is.
DeSantis has ordered some statewide measures such as closing bars and gyms, and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery. State parks have been closed. Anyone arriving from New York, New Jersey or Connecticut or anyone who returned from there within the last three weeks must self-quarantine under threat of 60 days in jail, DeSantis has said. The state issued recommendations Wednesday that people 65 and older or with health issues confine themselves to their home. The state is approaching 1,700 confirmed cases and at least 21 have died.
In Pinellas County, home to St. Petersburg, commissioners on Wednesday ordered their nearly 1 million residents to stay at home except for essential activity like trips for groceries and medical needs. The directive takes effect at noon Thursday. It allows non-essential businesses to remain open as long as they follow Centers for Disease Control social distancing guidance of 6-foot (2-meter) separation. Parks and boat ramps will remain open. Residents are permitted to exercise outdoors if they keep the proper distance apart and gather in groups of 10 or less.
The county has had 50 confirmed cases and one death, according to the state.
Officials in Hillsborough County, home to Tampa, will meet by telephone Thursday to hammer out the final language on an order that would restrict residents to their homes from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. on weekdays and 24 hours a day on weekends, with exceptions to get food, groceries, medicine and other essentials. Businesses deemed essential could stay open, provided that a 6-foot (2-meter) distance was maintained during any interaction with customers. Residents would also be allowed to do recreational activities outside. The county has had 106 cases and no deaths.
Counties and cities throughout the state, especially in the major metropolitan areas of south and central Florida, have imposed restrictions on their residents and businesses. The highway into the Florida Keys has been closed to non-residents. Stay-at-home orders for Orange and Osceola counties in the Orlando area go into effect Thursday night. Smaller, more rural counties have generally stuck with the restrictions DeSantis imposed statewide.
The state did get some good news Wednesday when the Florida Senate released a report showing sales tax revenues before the coronavirus hit were higher than expected. Collections were nearly $49 million above estimates, and the state had seen an overall $141 million gain in revenue through February compared to the same period last year.
The Legislature last week sent DeSantis a $93 billion state budget that many lawmakers believe will have to be adjusted as tax revenues will plummet with the closure of the state’s theme parks, beaches and other attractions. The state does have $4 billion in reserves.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.
Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale. Associated Press writers Mike Schneider in Orlando and Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg contributed to this report.
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