TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Swift-moving developments over the new coronavirus ricocheted across Florida's Capitol as Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency Monday and lawmakers disrupted their legislative session so crews in surgical gowns could swab down the House chambers.
Facing a growing public health crisis, DeSantis declared the state of emergency to better marshal resources and get outside help to combat the virus strain that has killed two people in his state.
At a news conference at the state Capitol, the governor appealed for calm and common-sense precautions. He specifically cautioned the elderly and those with underlying health conditions to not take cruise ships or long-haul flights, and avoid large gatherings.
Florida health officials have stressed that normally healthy individuals remain at low risk of contracting the virus.
DeSantis said the emergency declaration allows for what he called a unified command structure to limit the spread of the virus, and to allow the state to more effectively mobilize resources.
“It also allows — if need be — out-of-state medical personnel to operate in Florida," he said. "It allows us to more swiftly purchase any necessary supplies, including masks and materials and equipment necessary to set up field hospitals.”
The governor's announcement capped a day of quickly — and sometimes strangely — shifting developments.
Earlier Monday, the Florida House abruptly recessed and cleared public galleries after several of its members agreed to be tested for the virus after recently attending conferences in Washington, D.C., where other attendees tested positive for COVID-19.
The unplanned recess was meant to “set an example in the ongoing fight against COVID-19, and in an abundance of caution,” said House Speaker Jose Oliva.
Five members were escorted from the chamber by Rep. Cary Pigman, a medical doctor who serves in the House.
The public gallery overlooking the chamber floor also was evacuated as the cleaning crew swabbed down desks. The recess halted legislative business in the House and Senate for more than an hour.
Legislative business resumed after all five legislators were later allowed to return, ushered in by Pigman amid applause from fellow members. Four Republicans had attended the Conservative Political Action Conference in the nation's capital late last month, while the Democratic leader of the House attended the AIPAC conference, also in Washington, D.C.
Earlier in the day, Florida Health Department Spokesman Alberto Moscoso said “the situation in Florida is swiftly changing."
As the day wore on, that seemed like an understatement.
The confusion began much when Florida health officials walked back an earlier advisory requesting all travelers returning from foreign countries self-isolate, further sowing confusion over its efforts to contain a fast-spreading threat to public health.
A statement from the Florida Health Department had earlier advised all individuals traveling internationally to self-isolate for 14 days.
Two hours later, health officials revised the advisory to realign with federal health guidelines that require travelers returning from the high-risk countries — China, South Korea, Italy and Iran — to remain home and avoid contact with others.
Florida's governor acknowledged the misstep during his news conference.
Oliva, Florida's House Speaker, acknowledged the virus threat shortly after the House convened for what was supposed to be the final week of this year's legislative session.
Budget negotiators over the weekend said they would fund a $25 million request from DeSantis to help the state respond to the growing crisis. The state is also hoping for an additional $27 million in emergency federal funds.
"We may be facing a very real challenge here. The coronavirus, while it had a rather minute effect on us, the panic surrounding it has had a real affect," he said.
The Republican speaker said he asked lawmakers across the aisle and in the Senate “for us to come together to make sure that before we put the budget on the books, we are doing everything that we can to ensure that should a recession come on, we are leaving future Legislatures with the power to be able to overcome it.”
That concern could influence ongoing budget negotiations even as it threatened to rewrite spending agreements, including a possible deal on boosting starting salaries for teachers.
During his news conference, DeSantis urged lawmakers to continue moving forward on the raise — one of his key agenda items.
Late Monday, state health officials reported that a 60-year-old Volusia County woman tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the state's total to 19. Of those, two people have died.
Of the 19 cases, 13 were diagnosed in Florida and five in another state, officials said. In addition a California resident, now under self-isolation in Florida, has tested positive.
In Florida, worries rose over how virus fears could play out in a state that is a destination for millions of overseas visitors. Already, there is concern about how the virus could affect amusement parks such as Disney World in Orlando, one of the country's most visited attractions. Cruise lines are also being impacted.
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