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Florida vows aid to businesses in wake of COVID-19 outbreak

Theme parks close, many beaches remain open

Coronavirus: Walt Disney World theme parks to close through March
Coronavirus: Walt Disney World theme parks to close through March

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said his administration was considering newly announced federal guidelines on public gatherings in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, but the governor said he was not ready to order across-the-board closures of restaurants and bars.

On the eve of St. Patrick's Day celebrations and the state's presidential primary, state officials were bracing for large gatherings — at bars, restaurants and at the polls — that could further spread the new strain of virus that has already infected more than 140 Floridians.

"If you look around the state of Florida, this is not uniform in terms of where the virus is percolating," the governor said during a Monday afternoon news conference.

The governor said he would likely leave it to localities to tailor their response to the virus based on the specific circumstances of their respective communities, the governor said.

Huge swaths of the state appear have not yet had any confirmed infections. Broward and the South Florida county of Miami-Dade have by far the largest number of infections, with nearly half of all the state's cases.

During his news conference, the governor urged the federal government to provide loans to help rescue small businesses from the economic turbulence wrought by spreading infections. He said the state would launch a loan program of its own, and provide $50 million to fund a loan program that could immediately provide small businesses with $50,000 loans.

The outbreak has elections officials across the state taking precautions against the virus, saying poll staff are prepared to swab down voting machines and ensuring the safety of voters and precinct workers.

Georgia, Ohio and Louisiana have delayed their primaries. But in line with Arizona and Illinois, Florida had not postponed Tuesday’s presidential primary.

"Florida is proceeding with tomorrow's scheduled election," Secretary of State Laurel Lee said during the governor's press conference.

"Based on the best information that we have," she said, “we are confident that voters in Florida can safely and securely go to the polls and cast their ballots in tomorrow's election.”

As of Monday, she said, about 2 million Floridians had already voted early or sent their ballots through the mail.

The state's emergency management director, Jared Moskowitz, appealed to younger people on spring break to act responsibly and heed calls for them to avoid public gatherings that could turn themselves into carriers for the virus.

Some beaches have already been closed, and some communities have ordered businesses to close early to help enforce curfews.

Beaches on Florida’s Gulf coast near Tampa intend to stay open until state emergency officials mandate closures. Social media and local news reports showed Clearwater Beach flooded with spring breakers on Monday.

The governor has left it to local communities to decide if they would restrict access to beaches.

At the urging of federal health officials, President Donald Trump on Monday issued guidelines that calling on Americans to avoid gathering of more than 10 people.

DeSantis said his administration was taking the new guidelines under advisement and could issue its own guidelines as soon as Tuesday.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry announced Monday that he is limiting crowd capacity of recreational and social gatherings and establishments to 50 people. This includes shopping malls, restaurants, bars, churches and movie theaters. Office buildings, manufacturing plants, grocery stores and many other businesses are exempt from the limit.

Earlier Monday, Florida’s two largest theme parks — Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando — announced they would shutter hotels and other entertainment venues because of growing concern over the new strain of coronavirus.

State officials, meanwhile, were still planning to hold Tuesday's presidential primaries, even as other states put theirs on hold.

Universal Orlando Resort said in a statement that it would close its popular CityWalk, filled with restaurants, shops and movie theaters, at midnight, and close all hotels on Friday at 5 p.m. It said the closures would extend through the end of the month.

In a tweet, Walt Disney World also announced that its hotels and the Disney Springs entertainment district also would close at 5 p.m. Friday to give guests time to arrange other accommodations.

The company said all Disney stores nationwide would close on Tuesday, including in Disney Springs in Orlando, Florida, and Downtown Disney in Anaheim, California. To help contain the spread of the disease, Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens closed on Sunday night for at least two weeks.

Also on Monday, the state unveiled a new online dashboard that provides the public with a clearer picture of where the virus has hit. The COVID-19 surveillance dashboard provides a color-coded map that shows the intensity of infections across the state.

A drive-thru testing facility was expected to open soon at a hospital in the state's hardest hit county, Broward, in South Florida, DeSantis announced on Sunday.

More than 170 National Guard personnel have deployed in the county, and 300 additional Guard members were soon to be activated to help with the testing. State officials said they also were preparing to set up mobile hospitals to help the state's hospitals with testing if needed. The tests will be free to patients, DeSantis said.

The virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, for most people, but older adults and those with existing health problems can develop severe complications, including pneumonia. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

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