FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s deaths from the new coronavirus surpassed 1,000 Friday and the number of confirmed cases reached 30,000 as committees advising Gov. Ron DeSantis on how to fully reopen the state’s businesses and public places began wrapping up their recommendations.
Members of the committees issued conflicting pleas about when to reopen businesses that have been shuttered for weeks over coronavirus concerns.
During a Friday afternoon news conference, DeSantis said he has no specific date yet for the reopening to begin, saying he first wants to review the recommendations. Some of that will depend on making testing easier, so DeSantis announced that he will allow pharmacists to begin administering the swab tests along with doctors, nurses and some others.
“This was a traumatic period and I think a lot of people are still very, very worried,” DeSantis said. “We need to show, ‘Look, this is going to be an issue, it is not necessarily going away, but we know what we’ve got to do and we have a plan to go forward.’”
The head of the agency that licenses Florida businesses said many rural counties are ready to have their businesses back open, even if the state’s larger cities weren’t in a position to do that.
“These rural counties are different from large cities. Some of them are ready to reopen,” said Halsey Beshears, secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, during a presentation on small businesses.
Amy Mercer, executive director of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, asked the governor not to do that during a presentation on public safety at a separate meeting. She said reopening in rural areas would cause other Floridians to travel to those regions and overwhelm those officers. For example, the Panhandle has had many fewer cases than South Florida, where a medical school’s study showed Miami-Dade County’s infection rate is much higher than expected.
Meanwhile, the more than half-million Floridians who haven’t received their first unemployment payments won’t be able to check their claim’s status this weekend as the system’s beleaguered computer system was partially shut down Friday. A notice said it will reopen Monday. A portal for filing claims remained open, however.
The state Department of Health reported Friday that Florida has had at least 1,046 virus-related deaths and since March 1 has had almost 31,000 confirmed cases. Miami-Dade County continued to be the state’s coronavirus epicenter with a third of the confirmed cases. Almost 5,000 people were hospitalized statewide Friday because of the virus.
A University of Miami medical school study released Friday shows Miami-Dade could have had up to 221,000 infections, about 8% of its population and almost 20 times the number of confirmed cases. Researchers randomly tested 1,800 residents for COVID-19 antibodies over the last two weeks and 6% came back positive, with many of them showing no symptoms.
Friday’s grim milestones came as the governor’s task force continued to ponder recommendations for how to reopen businesses that have been shuttered, in many parts, since mid-March when local lockdown orders were issued. DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order at the beginning of April. DeSantis hoped to have the task force’s recommendations Friday, but some of subcommittees indicated they will need to submit theirs over the weekend.
Subcommittees on various sectors reported Friday:
— Mercer, of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, told her subcommittee that law enforcement is worried that if regulations aren’t uniform statewide, people will congregate at the least-restricted locations and activities. She said police chiefs would prefer not to be charged with enforcing any social distancing guidelines, but there needs to be clear and uniform direction statewide if they are required to do so.
— Dentistry: Dr. Rudy Liddell of the Florida Dental Association asked that the governor not extend the current ban prohibiting non-emergency treatment beyond the current expiration date of May 8. He said about a quarter of dentists surveyed said they would not be able to reopen their practice if they remained essentially closed through May and nearly half said they would go out of business if they can’t reopen by July 1. He said dentists would take precautions such as wearing masks, face shields and goggles during treatments while patients would be screened, have their temperatures taken and would wait in their cars for their appointment instead of in the office.
— Insurance: State Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier said some business owners are complaining that their policies covering involuntary shutdowns specifically excludes pandemics. He said insurance companies say they would suffer major losses if they were required retroactively to cover such claims as they charged premiums based on that exclusion. He said businesses might not see increases in their employee health insurance premiums as the extra costs from treating coronavirus patients is being offset by fewer claims in other health areas.
Schneider reported from Orlando. Associated Press writers Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg and David Fischer in Miami contributed to this report.