Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday ordered his state’s 21 million residents to stay home for 30 days, retreating from piecemeal efforts to thwart the coronavirus after the White House called for a “national pause” and scientists warned of flare-ups outside of the New York epicenter.
Mr. DeSantis, a Republican who speaks to President Trump often, had resisted a statewide order even as Florida cases roughly doubled in recent days — to nearly 7,000 — and experts warned that Miami and other places could be slammed by the disease.
Mr. DeSantis justified the delay by noting Broward and Miami-Dade counties accounted for the majority of Florida cases, while other parts of the state experienced low transmission. But he changed his mind after Mr. Trump decided to extend social-distancing guidelines until April 30.
“People aren’t going to just go back to work,” Mr. DeSantis said. “That’s a national pause button.”
The governor’s political rivals said the statewide order is the right move, though a belated one, after scenes of spring breakers clogging Florida beaches caused a national uproar in mid-March.
“It is distressing that Governor Ron DeSantis waited until the coronavirus had spread to so many Floridians before finally issuing a statewide stay-at-home order,” said Terrie Rizzo, chairwoman of Florida Democratic Party. “I hope this will finally slow the rise in infections and that his actions are not too late.”
Like in other states, Floridians can still go out to buy groceries, medicine and other necessities.
The coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China, in December. It killed thousands in East Asia before the epicenter shifted to Europe and the Americas.
The U.S. has recorded the most COVID-19 infections of any country, with over 200,000, though a secret U.S. intelligence report has reportedly cast doubt on the official numbers out of China, where the outbreak began, calling them “intentionally incomplete.”
Mr. Trump said he hasn’t seen the report.
“We have not received that, but their numbers seem to be a little on the light side,” Mr. Trump said, though added: “I’m not an accountant from China.”
Over 4,750 people in the U.S. have died of the virus’s disease, COVID-19, while nearly 8,500 people have officially recovered, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.
New York state — with a population of nearly 20 million — is by far the hardest-hit in the nation, with 83,700 positive coronavirus cases and nearly 2,000 deaths.
Speaking at the White House, Mr. Trump said “every American heart is joined with New York” as it bears the brunt of the crisis.
“I love New York,” said Mr. Trump, who grew up there. He said the epicenter might shift to other parts of the country, however.
“There are some areas and hotspots of other states that are really exploding,” Mr. Trump said. “Some, like Louisiana, were really late, then all of a sudden it was like an explosion.”
Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department of Health, said there are various hot spots around the country and that New York is in a “terrible situation.”
“And so you’re trying to get all the supplies to them,” Dr. Acton said Wednesday.
“The problem we’re going to face with this unique pandemic is that within two weeks, a lot of us are going to go off at the same time,” she said. “And there needs to be a combination strategy of prioritizing hot spots as they exist.”
Mr. Trump said he might look at restrictions on domestic flights from hotspot to hotspot, though he’s worried about its impact on the financially beleaguered airline industry.
“We’re thinking about doing that, at the same time to start this whole thing over again is very tough,” Mr. Trump said. “Once you do that, you really are clamping down an industry that’s desperately needed.”
The president said 17,000 National Guardsmen have mobilized across the country to move medical supplies from warehouses to hospitals. Also, he confirmed the possibility of using Veterans Affairs hospitals to treat the civilian overflow from other hospitals.
“We’re ready to move very quickly if we need them. Hopefully, we won’t need them,” Mr. Trump said. “We are preparing for the worst.”
In New York, meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said officials are closing down New York City playgrounds, citing the lack of compliance with social distancing rules. He called on the city police department to get more aggressive in enforcing the rules and said people who continue to flout them are “reckless.”
“Who else has to die for you to understand you have a responsibility in this?” said the governor, a Democrat.
All told, nearly 300 million people in 37 states, 74 counties, 14 cities, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are under government “stay-at-home” orders.
Members of the White House coronavirus task force on Tuesday said there could be 100,000 to 240,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S. even if people practice proper social distancing.
Mr. Cuomo went through another model run by a group funded by the Gates Foundation that projects 93,000 Americans, and 16,000 New Yorkers, would die by the time the virus runs its course.
“If this model if correct, this could go through the summer,” he said, citing projections of a high death rate through July.
He said he didn’t quite understand the ratio since New York comprises a significantly greater share of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. right now, but noted that the model shows “tens of thousands” of deaths outside the state.
“So to the extent people watch their nightly news in Kansas and say ‘well, this is a New York problem’ — that’s not what these numbers say,” he said. “It says it’s a New York problem today. Tomorrow it’s a Kansas problem, and a Texas problem, and a New Mexico problem.”
“That’s why I say to my fellow governors and elected officials all across this country: look at us today. See yourself tomorrow,” he said. “And let’s address it in New York and let’s cooperate to address it in New York because it’s going to be in your town tomorrow, metaphorically.”
Some leaders are taking the warning to heart.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan recently warned that his state is “going to be looking more like New York” by Easter, while D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser sent robocalls to residents in the capital region Wednesday warning them to stay home or practice social distancing if they do venture out.
Mr. DeSantis said that “non-essential” businesses in Florida will be able to make deliveries instead of shuttering completely under his order, though people cannot gather inside establishments.
The governor’s order allows religious services to proceed, despite concern these gatherings might allow the virus to spread, and it says residents will still be able to get care for their pets and buy food for them.
Seeing an opportunity, the governor told his transportation secretary to accelerate over $2.1 billion in construction projects because fewer people will be on the roads during the shutdown.
Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he hopes “social distancing” practices can be relaxed once the disease is brought under control, though a solid program of containment must be in place first.
“The ultimate solution to a virus that might keep coming back would be a vaccine,” Dr. Fauci said, noting various candidates are in clinical trials.
In the meantime, states are looking at onerous lockdown measures to thwart the virus’s spread.
Mr. Cuomo said he’s not sure that the U.S. would stomach nationwide restrictions along the lines of the ones imposed in Wuhan, China, where officials banished most private vehicles from the road, conducted door-to-door health checks, and limited the number of family members who could venture out.
“Wuhan basically just locked up society,” Mr. Cuomo said. “I don’t even know that if the federal government enacted the Wuhan model that the American people would comply. We have a totally different social structure, governmental structure.”
Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Obama, said the U.S. will need to test aggressively and then track remaining infections once the nation turns the tide against COVID-19.
“We need an army of contact-tracers in every community in the U.S.,” Dr. Frieden, who is the CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, a public health organization.
He also said it is concerning that CDC officials haven’t been the public face of the U.S. response, as Mr. Trump grabs the spotlight with select members of his coronavirus task force each day.
“Let’s be frank — they are our number-one experts in how to address a pandemic,” Dr. Frieden said.
“I will feel safer when we’re hearing from them every single day.”
• Dave Boyer and James Varney contributed to this report.
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