Rejecting calls from local elected officials and the medical community, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will not declare a state of emergency despite the state leading the nation with 20% of all new COVID-19 infections — a spike largely driven by the delta variant.
Meanwhile, multiple Florida mayors have announced mask and vaccine mandates, defying the governor, who is firmly opposed to any pandemic restrictions.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said masks will again be required at indoor county facilities in the populous Florida county, following new federal guidance recommending that even people vaccinated against COVID-19 should wear facial coverings in some situations.
“We have all come too far. We have all sacrificed too much in this past almost year and a half. We cannot turn back now,” Levine Cava said, adding that her decision is a response to the surge in new cases and hospitalizations.
In Orange County, home to Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort, Mayor Jerry Demings went a step further and said all 4,200 nonunion county employees will be required to get their first coronavirus vaccine shot by the end of August and the second shot by the end of September.
“We want to keep our county and theme parks open for business,” Demings said at a news conference Wednesday. “By instituting these measures, we want everyone to know, in Orange County, Florida, we take the coronavirus seriously.”
Beginning Friday, Disney World will require face coverings for all guests ages 2 and older while indoors and in Disney’s buses, monorail and Skyliner, regardless of vaccination status.
The City of Palm Beach, home to Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago resort, on Monday reinstated a mask mandate for anyone entering government buildings whether they are vaccinated or not.
In recent weeks, the state has seen a huge spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
Last week, it recorded 73,199 more infections, the biggest single-week surge since Jan. 27, according to the weekly state Department of Health report. That’s 83 more cases than California, Illinois, New York and Texas combined, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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COVID-related hospitalizations have surged by 106% in Florida over the last two weeks, according to Health and Human Services data reported by the New York Times.
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DeSantis responded to the spike on July 19: “I told people months ago (that) we would see higher prevalence because it’s a seasonal virus and this is the seasonal pattern that it follows in the Sunbelt states, particularly in Florida.”
He said he’s been telling people to get vaccinated because of the summer season, noting that 95% of those who are being hospitalized are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated.
Democratic state Sen. Shevrin Jones called for DeSantis to issue a public health emergency to free up resources.
“I’m happy to see that the governor is promoting vaccinations the way he is, but I am equally disappointed in his response to Florida now having the most COVID cases in the country,” Jones told the USA TODAY Network.
“What will it take for the governor to show that he gives a damn about the hospitals busting at the seams with new cases in our emergency rooms?” Jones said.
While local governments in much of the country are able to impose pandemic restrictions such as mask mandates, DeSantis and the state’s Republican-controlled legislature have passed legislation in an attempt to limit local leaders’ authority.
In Orange County, Demings told reporters earlier this week that the city was in “crisis mode” but stymied by state law that prevents the enforcement of mask mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions.
On Friday, DeSantis announced an executive order that would issue emergency rules for “protecting the rights of parents,” making face masks optional in schools and leaving it up to parents.
But a state law signed in May gives DeSantis the power to invalidate local emergency measures put in place during the pandemic, including mask mandates and limitations on business operations. It also bans any business or government entity from requiring proof of vaccination.
It forces local governments to issue emergency orders lasting one week, with the ability to renew them five times for a total of 42 days.
When he signed the law, DeSantis declared that Florida’s statewide public health emergency was over.
Cities should “do what’s best for the public health of their city and deal with what comes with it later,” Jones said. “What’s the worst that can happen? A lawsuit? That’s what you call good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Contributing: Adriana Gomez Licon and Mike Schneider, The Associated Press
Jeffrey Schweers is a capital bureau reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida.Follow Jeffrey Schweers on Twitter: @jeffschweers.