FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Florida reported more than 10,000 new confirmed coronavirus cases for the first time Thursday, an unwanted milestone eclipsed hours before Vice President Mike Pence and Gov. Ron DeSantis met in Tampa to discuss the state's response to the disease.
The new record of 10,109 cases is partly caused by increased testing, but the mark is six times higher than where the record stood a month ago. Testing is up about 50% during that period.
The state also reported 67 virus-related deaths Thursday, as the seven-day average for daily fatalities is now back over 40, a 30% increase from two weeks ago. The state’s death rate had declined from 60 per day in May to 30 two weeks ago before it began creeping up. The Health Department also tallied 325 new coronavirus hospitalizations Thursday, one of the biggest 24-hour jumps since the pandemic began.
Since March 1, the state has seen more than 169,000 confirmed cases and 3,718 deaths. Before June 11, the state’s worst day for reported cases had been 1,601, set in mid-May. That number has been eclipsed every day for the last three weeks. The state's positivity rate for those tested is now 16%, up from 2.3% in late May.
The spikes caused DeSantis to reclose bars to sit-down service, several counties to close their beaches for the July Fourth weekend and numerous municipalities to order the wearing of masks in public spaces, a mandate that some opponents are challenging in court. For the first time, a state legislator is known to have tested positive.
The outbreak also forced Pence and DeSantis to curtail their visit, which was supposed to be part of the vice president's now-canceled “Faith In America” campaign tour. DeSantis, a Republican, is a strong ally of President Donald Trump. The governor and Pence instead visited a medical training center at the University of South Florida.
Pence and DeSantis encouraged everyone, especially young adults, to wear masks in public spaces and avoid large gatherings. Both wore masks when not speaking. Pence said such steps are necessary if the the state's infection level is to return to its earlier levels while maintaining a relatively open economy.
“It is not an either/or choice,” Pence said. “We can slow the spread. We can flatten the curve, but it will take all of us.” He said he is “excited” to come to Jacksonville for August's Republican National Convention.
DeSantis has refused to issue a statewide mask order, however, saying that action is best left to local governments as some small, rural counties have few cases and no need for a mandate.
Earlier Thursday, Florida Democrats criticized the White House and DeSantis as needlessly endangering lives by opening the economy too soon and not mandating masks.
“They have put politics ahead of public health,” said U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, President Bill Clinton's Health and Human Services secretary. “We needed at the beginning to hit this virus with a hammer.”
Meanwhile, Palm Beach County is being sued over its new ordinance requiring masks be worn in crowded public spaces. The opponents say the ordinance violates their personal autonomy and lowers their oxygen levels. They also question the pandemic existence.
The county commission passed the ordinance unanimously last week over the objection of opponents whose often angry claims were broadcast nationally.
“Pandemics, like the purported COVID-19 pandemic, are nothing new,” the opponents' attorneys wrote.
The county doesn’t comment on pending lawsuits, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others have recommended masks be worn as they lessen the chance the wearer will spread the virus. They strongly dispute that masks cause harm. About 130,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and almost 3 million have contracted it since February.
Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, a Florida International University epidemiologist, said she is glad some officials are mandating masks and hopes Floridians are cautious over the holiday weekend.
“We are going to be in a very difficult situation for at least a month,” she said. “The behavior of people this (weekend) will be very critical. People really have to avoid congregating in groups and be sure to wear masks.”
State Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Broward County Democrat, tested positive Wednesday, becoming the first-known Florida legislator to catch the virus. He had gone to the emergency room with fever, chills and trouble breathing.
“I felt awful,” Jones said Thursday. Jones, 36, said he should be fine since he’s young and healthy, but fears for his parents and others. He encouraged DeSantis to slow his push to reopen the economy.
Because of the virus, many holiday plans are scuttled. Megan Archer, a 39-year-old West Palm Beach resident who lost her county parks job during the outbreak, said her family is not planning any outings, even though they hate being inside.
“It’s hard for us to do the right thing, but we know we have to protect our family,” she said.
Anderson reported from St. Petersburg. Reporter Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami contributed to this report.
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