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Florida’s top Democrat unveils ads aimed at mask wearing

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried unveils new campaign aimed at encouraging residents to wear masks.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried unveils new campaign aimed at encouraging residents to wear masks. (Florida Department of Agriculture)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida's agriculture commissioner unveiled a public awareness campaign Monday urging Floridians to keep their distance and wear masks to lower the risk of coronavirus infections. It's the latest pressure tactic aimed at Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' resistance to ordering a mandatory mask requirement.

“Not enough people are doing the small things to slow down COVID-19," said Nikki Fried, Florida's only Democratic statewide officeholder, at a news conference in Tallahassee. "To reopen our state and our economy safely, we must all be in this together."

The series of videos feature famous Floridians, including the Miami Heat's Alonzo Mourning, U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez -- a Republican. In a 16-second clip, Suarez is seen with his nose and mouth covered. He says he’s doing his “part by wearing a mask and keeping my distance,” and ends the spot with “be smart, Florida.”

Fried’s announcement came after DeSantis launched a series of videos meant to shore up his standing amid criticism over his handling of the pandemic. Critics have said DeSantis should have shut down the state sooner last spring as the virus was spreading and should order a mandatory statewide mask requirement.

On Friday, the governor’s office released a video promoting “One Goal One Florida,” a public service campaign that also urges Floridians to heed precautions.

“Now is not the time to let up,” DeSantis says into the camera. “We all have one goal as one state.”

The dueling initiatives underscore how the pandemic has also spread into the political sphere.

DeSantis has been widely criticized for his handling of the pandemic, as Democrats and others have questioned his every step -- including his decision to not order a statewide mask mandate and what Fried asserted were early missteps.

“If we had shut down earlier,” she said, “we wouldn’t be in this situation right now.”

Florida reported 73 additional deaths from the new coronavirus on Monday as the number of new cases increased by almost 4,800 people, health officials reported.

As of Monday, Florida had a total of 491,884 coronavirus cases and around 7,200 related deaths.

However, testing sites in parts of Florida closed for several days at the end of last week as Tropical Storm Isaias threatened the state's Atlantic Coast. Also, the number of new cases on Mondays tend to be smaller than other days of the weeks as some labs are closed and testing isn't conducted at other facilities over the weekend. On many days last week, the number of reported new cases was around double Monday's tally.

The director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, Jared Moskowitz, said his agency delivered about 10,000 pandemic kits to area shelters ahead of Isaias.

State officials couldn't readily say how many Floridians sought shelter in county-run facilities, but they said a handful of people who tested positive for the coronavirus or had elevated temperatures were redirected to area hotels to keep them separated from noninfected people.

The state has about 200,000 kits containing masks and hand sanitizer stockpiled for any incoming storms, Moskowitz said.

“It’s our recommendation to the counties that masks be mandated for shelters,” he said. “Everybody’s going will have a mask. Everybody’s going will have hand sanitizer. Everybody’s going will get gloves.”

The reported deaths do not necessarily reflect the exact day in which the person died, and Florida had numbers as high as 257 new daily deaths late last week.

Florida's seven-day average of daily reported deaths was 176, second to Texas in total numbers for the summer resurgence of the pandemic in the Sunbelt states. It was fourth behind Arizona, Mississippi and Texas in per-capita terms. Florida’s numbers compare with average daily reported deaths of more than 760 per day for New York in mid-April.

The number of patients in Florida hospitals for COVID-19 was relatively stable, at just below 8,000 and down from highs above 9,500 nearly two weeks ago.

“We are encouraged by some of the trends we are seeing," DeSantis said Monday at a news conference in Fort Lauderdale.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak