Slowly and reluctantly over the past month, as coronavirus infections grew from almost none to nearly 8,000 and more than 125 residents have died, Florida has sobered up. Under mounting pressure, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) this week ordered most Floridians to remain at home starting Friday, a move that more than 30 U.S. states had already taken in an effort to slow the spread of a deadly viral infection with no vaccine and no cure.
But as case counts climb in the nation’s third most-populous state — one home to bustling international airports, swarms of tourists and many vulnerable residents — many are now left to wait and wonder if the latest restrictions came in time, and what lies ahead for the Sunshine State.
“I have zero doubt that there are hundreds if not thousands of cases we don’t know about,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said in an interview.
Suarez was among the first people in his city to be infected with covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and he emerged from quarantine two days before the rest of his state was ordered to shelter in place.
“We’re not quite a hot spot, but we have all the factors,” he said. “We can quickly become one.”
Florida’s bout with the virus is likely to peak in early May, when an estimated 175 people will die of covid-19 every day, according to the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which has provided a much-cited model of the outbreak. In total, it predicts 6,897 Sunshine State residents could eventually die of the coronavirus.
“I would love it to be accurate and I very much hope it is, but we must be prepared for the possibility that is an optimistic scenario,” William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said of that model.
Hanage said he is “very worried” about what awaits the state.
“My concern for Florida is rooted in the fact it has a population that skews old,” he said. “There have been reasonably large opportunities for super spreading events. And I don’t think there is very good evidence that the transmission of covid-19 is slowed in any meaningful way by warmer temperatures.”
As recently as Tuesday, DeSantis said he had no plans to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, in part because the White House coronavirus task force had not explicitly recommended it.
A day later, facing mounting criticism as caseloads multiplied, the governor ordered the state’s nearly 21 million residents to stay indoors for 30 days unless they are pursuing essential services or activities. His executive order takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday.
“It makes sense to make this move now,” DeSantis said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference, saying he had spoken with President Trump about the decision. “We don’t really know how all these measures work, because it’s never been tried on American society before. But I think we find ourselves in a situation where we have a national pause, and we need to deal with this front and center.”
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has been imploring DeSantis to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order for two weeks. Fried said Thursday she’s glad the governor finally agreed.
“The piecemeal approach wasn’t working,” Fried said. “I’m glad the governor finally came to this realization and decision. I hope it was quick enough.”
Palm Beach Town Manager Kirk Blouin said if the state had been faster to clamp down, the spread of the virus in Florida might have been contained more quickly.
“I wish it would have been done a bit sooner,” Blouin said. “Now my concern is, what’s the longer term strategy going to be? After a while, people without jobs, without money, without the basic survival needs, that’s going to create a whole new set of problems. We can do this ‘safe at home’ as a two- or a four-week strategy, but this thing can go on for months. We have to be thinking about that now.”
The governor’s stay-at-home order still allows Floridians some leeway to gather, even in some instances where local officials have previously cracked down. It permits church services, for example.
Just this week, officials in Hillsborough County arrested the pastor of a Tampa megachurch after he held Sunday services in defiance of county orders to limit public gatherings, telling congregants that he would close the church only for the Rapture.
The state has faced criticism for its uneven, patchwork embrace of social distancing and other measures to slow the spread of the virus, even as it became clear that the outbreak was deepening around the country.
Well into mid-March, huge crowds flocked to theme parks. Spring breakers crowded beaches, until local officials took it upon themselves to shut down parts of the coastline. Now, questions remain about what impact those lost days might mean for Florida — and for the communities to which some tourists returned.
As the spread of the coronavirus began to accelerate in the United States a month ago, Nicholas Hickman decided to take his birthday celebration trip to Walt Disney World, in part because the state and the county had not issued a stay-at-home order. When his plane touched down in Orlando, there had been no cases reported in the county where the Magic Kingdom is located.
“When we went, the primary defense for the virus was just to wash hands,” he said. He and his friends ate at their hotel and spent most of the trip smelling like hand sanitizer. “If we were told not to go to Disney, we definitely would not have gone.”
A day after he returned home to Ringgold, a north Georgia city of fewer than 4,000 people near the Tennessee border, he learned that Walt Disney World planned to close its doors over coronavirus fears.
Three days later, he fell ill: head and muscle aches, dizziness and a fever that shot up to 104 degrees. After two trips to hospitals and a battery of tests to rule out other infections, doctors relented and tested him for covid-19.
“They told me that they felt like they were wasting a test,” he said, “because they only had four or five tests in the whole hospital. They kind of diagnosed and treated me for bronchitis. They said ‘really we think you just have bronchitis.’ ”
He self-quarantined, even though it would be days before he got test results confirming he had covid-19. One of his biggest fears, he said, was that he might spark an outbreak in his city — one that would start with his parents, with whom he lives. As Hickman’s symptoms began to abate, his parents felt unwell.
“They’ve been sick for the last week. My mom has been tested for it, but her results haven’t come back,” Hickman said. “No one will even test my dad. They’re like ‘your son’s got it and your wife’s got it’ so it’s not even worth [doing the test].’ ”
The family’s health worries have ceded to financial worries.
“Now my parents, they can’t go to work. I can’t go to work. I worked at a restaurant and now all the restaurants are closed,” he said. “I don’t even have a job anymore. I have no money coming in now. My dad, we don’t know if he’s going to get paid.”
In Florida, state officials have requested federal help to build five mobile intensive care units and to secure 5,000 ventilators, 5,000 additional hospital beds, 150,000 personal protective equipment kits, millions more face masks and a wave of other supplies.
The state could also face additional burdens, including the arrival of a stranded, coronavirus-stricken cruise ship known as the Zaandam, where four people have died and nearly 200 have reported flu-like symptoms. A separate cruise ship also is headed toward Florida with some suspected covid-19 cases aboard.
In Miami, the mayor said he believes that Florida has enough beds and supplies to weather the worst, but he has ongoing worries: a still-open international airport that he said could be “a receptacle” for future transmissions; a police force where some officers have already tested positive for covid-19; and front-line workers who have been killed by the virus.
In parts of Florida, especially those where case counts have yet to skyrocket, there is still hope that it’s possible to stem the coming tide.
“I think they’ve been doing a good job with social distancing,” Michael Lauzardo, deputy director of the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, who has been helping oversee testing in The Villages, said of the senior citizens there. “It’s buying us time.”
Whether that holds true in the weeks ahead remains unclear, in part because as in many parts of the country, a shortage of tests and supplies have prevented health experts from getting a clear picture of where and how quickly the virus is spreading.
“We’re flying blind in many instances,” Lauzardo said.
Sumter County, where much of The Villages is located, reported 66 cases of the coronavirus as of Wednesday, and the number of new cases has been growing steadily, according to the state health department.
Hanage, the Harvard epidemiologist, worries that many areas of the country no longer have enough time to dodge the viral freight train that is coming, including the Sunshine State.
“When it comes down to it, the future is not good anywhere,” he said. “But Florida has been late taking action that might help. And I hope it is spared the worse.”
Rozsa reported from Florida. Christine Loman contributed to this report.