ORLANDO — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) spent Tuesday amplifying his order requiring fliers from the New York area to self-isolate for two weeks upon arrival in the Sunshine State, arguing that travelers from coronavirus hot zones would "seed" the illness here.
The executive order in Florida, released Monday, specifies travelers from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, which all are contending with large outbreaks of the potentially deadly disease. DeSantis's order applies to people who enter Florida by airplane, but it does not apply to other modes of transportation — such as those who enter the state driving southbound on Interstate 95.
The restriction comes as DeSantis has been criticized for resisting calls for a stay-at-home order, something he said would wreck economies in parts of the state that haven't had a single confirmed coronavirus case. Nearly 1,500 Floridians have confirmed cases of coronavirus, and 20 have died. DeSantis has placed himself squarely in the group of political leaders who have questioned whether the most stringent efforts to stem the spread of coronavirus should be tempered before they inflict too much economic damage.
"You simply cannot lock down our society with no end in sight,'' he said at a news conference from the governor's office Monday night. He added that an enduring solution can't be "stay in your house for nine months. That's just not going to work."
DeSantis on Tuesday called for additional restrictions for people coming from New York, directing anyone who had traveled to Florida from that area in the past three weeks to self-isolate, "and they need to report any close contacts they've had within the state of Florida."
Despite the strong words from DeSantis — and an official covid-19 self-isolation airport travel form drawn up by the state department of health — enforcement efforts were at best mixed at Florida airports on their first day. Traffic from New York was light — several flights were canceled — and some airplanes were nearly empty, with travelers perhaps deterred by DeSantis's quarantine order.
Several travelers on flights from New York got off the planes in Florida expecting to be met by officials with thermometers, forms and questions — and instead found an unimpeded path to baggage claim.
Jamie LaPorta, a 23-year-old college student who lives in South Florida, was in New York visiting her boyfriend. She came back on Tuesday aboard a Frontier Airlines plane with a grand total of 14 people.
"I heard about the order, so it was strange to get here and there was nobody," LaPorta said shortly after arriving at Palm Beach International Airport.
"All I know is that I'm really glad to be back. It's just so strange up there now, mostly the panic that's going on," she said. "No one is leaving their house, the streets are empty, everything's closed."
Hanz Herrera, of Fort Lauderdale, said he and his family of five had traveled to New York last week to see his parents, both of whom are hospitalized with covid-19.
Before boarding the plane back to Florida, they had been warned that Florida officials might stop them, but when they arrived, they saw "nothing, nobody."
"I wish they had met up with the plane and checked everybody out," he said.
DeSantis said he told state legislative leaders that the Trump administration shares his concern about virus spread from fleeing New Yorkers — and the White House backed that up late Tuesday with a similar self-quarantine directive — akin to worries about international travelers bringing the disease from Europe and China.
"I told them there was a concern from the White House Task Force, and obviously from my administration about how people may be fleeing the hot zone and bringing the virus to Florida," DeSantis said.
On Tuesday, the White House coronavirus task force urged anyone who had left New York recently to stay inside for 14 days, no matter where they are.
"To everyone who has left New York over the last few days, because of the . . . number of cases, you may have been exposed before you left New York," said Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the task force. At a Tuesday news conference, she said 60 percent of all the new coronavirus cases in the United States stem from the New York City metro area.
Florida Democrats and other critics have said DeSantis is mismanaging the state's response to the coronavirus spread, and called for him to initiate a statewide stay-at-home order, which they said would help stem the spread in particularly hard hit parts of the state, like Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
Florida State Sen. Oscar Braynon (D-Miami Gardens) accused DeSantis of catering to the rural counties that make up his political base.
"He's speaking to his strongest supporters," Braynon said. "To them they don't see this as a real problem. They don't see why we shouldn't be going to work. They don't see why the mall shouldn't be open. Those people in Citrus County, I hate to say it, but they don't feel the need to sacrifice their livelihoods for liberal Broward County."
But DeSantis said no governor "should just be a dictator" and order residents "to be a prisoner in their homes." Instead, he emphasized that he is maintaining what he called a "surgical approach" by shutting down some counties, like Broward and Miami-Dade. He also is telling people 65 years old and up to stay at home, and he is ordering that no more than 50 people can be in one residence at a time — even private homes.
Those measures, he said, would help mitigate some of the economic damage in a tourism-dependent state reeling from countrywide calls for people to isolate themselves at home. In Orlando, for example, tourist hotspots like Disney World and Universal Studios remained closed, while nearby hotels and restaurants are mostly empty.
DeSantis's emphasis on preventing widespread economic fallout is similar to Trump's position; the president on Tuesday said that he wanted the country "opened up and just raring to go by Easter," despite warnings by experts that the United States could become the new epicenter of the global coronavirus crisis.
Rozsa reported from Palm Beach. Lori Aratani in Washington contributed to this report.