One-on-one with Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings

Demings talks mobile testing sites, reopening economy on “The Weekly on with Justin Warmoth.”

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings sat down with Justin Warmoth on “The Weekly on” to discuss the county’s response to the pandemic so far and what needs to happen before residents can go back to work.

ORLANDO, Fla. – As the curve begins to flatten for coronavirus cases in Florida, officials are now working on ways to safely re-open the economy.

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Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings sat down with Justin Warmoth on “The Weekly on” to discuss the county’s response to the pandemic so far and what needs to happen before residents can go back to work.

Here's a portion of the one-on-one interview that will air Sunday at 7:30 a.m. on News 6.

WARMOTH: How would you grade the residents of Orange County with how they’ve been practicing social distancing and staying at home as we try to stop the spread of the coronavirus?

DEMINGS: I’m going to give our community an A-minus. By and large 95 percent of our residents are following the orders. They’re complying with the social distancing. They’re voluntarily wearing the face masks and coverings. I have to applaud them for that effort. There are still a few who don’t get it, but we hope to bring them along as well.

WARMOTH: When you came in this morning you were donning your mask. Is that something you do when you’re out and about? Are you wearing your mask every day? And should folks, if they have one, wear a mask if they’re going to the grocery store or maybe pumping gas?

DEMINGS: When I’m out in the public I’m wearing my mask. In fact, when I’m in the county administration building and we’re having a meeting and we’re still six feet apart I’m still wearing a mask at that point. With leading the effort during a state of emergency, as the Orange County mayor I’ve become the emergency manager for the entire county. I have a leadership responsibility there and I don’t want to inadvertently take myself down and I cannot lead when I’m supposed to be leading when people need me the most.

WARMOTH: There’s no playbook for something like this. How challenging has this been to navigate the best practice in how you lead the residents of Orange County through this?

DEMINGS: I have to listen, like all other mayors and leaders across the nation, to our health care experts. Once I have the body of science and knowledge and information by which to make decisions, I’m very adept and used to crisis management. After four decades now of being a crisis manager much of what I do comes naturally. We have a great team of people at Orange County government who helps make certain that we respond in a timely manner to the needs of our community. There’s still a lot of uncertainty about this particular virus, but again I lean on the health care professionals to tell me more and more, and as each day goes by we learn more and more about this virus.

WARMOTH: And as each day goes by more and more people are getting tested. In fact, mobile testing sites are opening up around Central Florida. That is key in figuring out how widespread this is; when we can open up the economy; how many people are asymptomatic; there’s just so much that widespread testing can provide as we move forward.

DEMINGS: If there’s been any shortfall with the response to this pandemic it centers around the inability to test many people. Because we’ve relied on the strategic national stockpile, we’ve relied on the state, the public sector to acquire the testing kits, we don’t have nearly enough of those. However, I do have to say the private sector hospitals have really stepped up to the plate. They’ve been able to somehow get supplies of testing kits. Here in Orange County, in Central Florida, the majority of testing that has been done has not been through those public testing sites, but by the hospitals themselves.

WARMOTH: We’re about a month or so into the stay-at-home order from the governor. You issued an order before the governor, but the statewide safer-at-home order he put in place. Do you see this going another month?

DEMINGS: I can’t say precisely how much longer this is going to go. There is good news, however, because when we look at the various predictive models that the researchers and epidemiologists have looked at across the country and within Florida and Orange County, those predictive models suggest we could be in the period of the peak right now. Some of those models lag a bit and don’t show us peaking until the first week of May. In either case, what we’re seeing here in our community, while each day we have new cases, what we’re seeing is fewer individuals requiring hospitalization. So that suggests that for the last week a certain flattening the curve. If we can hold that flattening throughout this week I believe that bodes for good news for us that we have put measures in place. These stay at home orders and other social distancing directives, they are working, so that’s the good news that we have. However, even though fewer hospitalizations are occurring the individuals who are being hospitalized are critically ill. That’s the bad thing for those families. And I can tell you one of those individuals who has died I knew very personally. It makes the numbers real for me. Some of my colleagues have tested positive as well, so it’s a very serious virus that can be a deadly virus if we don’t manage the healthcare crisis appropriately.

WARMOTH: Have you been tested?

DEMINGS: I have been tested.

WARMOTH: And how’d that go?

DEMINGS: Negative.

WARMOTH: When we look at the numbers across the country obviously New York City is the epicenter of the outbreak. They’ve tested a lot of people, a lot of people come back positive. In Florida, the main problem remains down to our south and it continues to be down south. Are you surprised that with Orange County being such a tourist destination that the county has stayed towards the bottom of the top five [counties] in the state for cases?

DEMINGS: I’m not surprised and let me tell you why. I believe that early on, when the nation’s theme parks made a decision to close down, that was a pivotal moment for our community and perhaps a pivotal moment for America. Since we’re the number one tourist destination in the United States with over 75 million plus visitors who were coming here prior to this pandemic I believe that when the theme parks shut down that stopped the potential spread throughout the nation and certainly here within this area. I have to applaud those theme parks because the corporate decisions they made put the people over the profits.

WARMOTH: Disney World will have thousands of people furloughed. It seems like Governor DeSantis is taking priority in figuring out when and if they do become unemployed and get into the system, that he is trying to streamline that process. Do you think that is a good idea when you have this massive influx joining an already massive influx of people trying to get benefits?

DEMINGS: Well, let me say this. I think sometimes no good deed goes unpunished. I believe the goal that Disney had in mind was too lessen the burden on the state of Florida to process 43,000 of their employees on top of everybody else. Unfortunately they get criticized because the public’s perception is that their employees are somehow being taken care of first before others. There’s good and bad and there has to be a balance there, but certainly the 43,000 employees from Disney being in the mix with everybody else would complicate it all. I think as a responsible corporate employer Disney was trying to take care of their employees and not bring the system that is already terribly over-burdened to a halt.

WARMOTH: When we talk about reopening the economy, this is not going to be just opening the gates and letting everyone come in, right? Explain how this process is going to work when we eventually get there.

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DEMINGS: There will have to be a measured approach to reopening. Much like the post-9/11 days when airport and seaport security changed forever, when this pandemic passes by we’re going to see a change in the sanitary protocols across the globe forever. So as we reopen we have to endeavor to work with the federal, state and local governments who have the regulatory authority over workplaces, etc. to give guidance to what that reopening looks like. More than likely there will be certain businesses that will require certain screenings before their patrons can enter. There will be guidance about occupancy levels and creating and mandating certain social distancing. There will be other sanitary protocols. For example, there may be mandates for certain classes of employees that they have to wear masks, gloves and other pieces of sanitary equipment perhaps at a greater percentage of employees than they’ve ever seen before. All of that has to happen, so I believe there has to be a measured approach. We will work with the business community with guidance from health care experts about what it takes to really stop a potential virus from spreading or some other type of other diseases that may be airborne, transmitted through touch, etc. As we endeavor to learn more about this virus, you’ll see some sensible mandates that will be put in place. We’ll begin that process in the early part of the coming week where we will have a recovery task force that will work to ensure that we have the type of responses that are unique to Orange County and to the region itself.

WARMOTH: We’ve seen a number of states try to band together. When it comes to Florida specifically, is it going to be a statewide thing or do you think the governor will tell local counties to work within their region and go from there?

DEMINGS: The way we live our lives, we live in local communities. Regardless of whatever federal mandates or state mandates occur they get implemented at the local level, so the local businesses and community have to be involved in the decision-making process because you have to allow for the uniqueness of the types of industries we have in our respective areas to get some input on what’s really practical. We recently had a conversation across the region between Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake counties to talk about what that looks like for our entire region.

WARMOTH: What do you think the job market will look like over the summer?

DEMINGS: There will be some entrepreneurial opportunities. There are some individuals who have already adjusted their business models. I believe from a business perspective there are new opportunities there. So if you were one of the individuals who lost their job, think about becoming an entrepreneur. Think about what we’re doing. We know that in terms of the supply chain for the different types of sanitary devices or supplies that will be needed, that won’t change forever, so if I was looking to get into a certain business I’d be looking to get into those types of businesses. Businesses such as restaurants have had to make an adjustment. They now understand they can do much more delivery and take-out business, so I think there are opportunities there for our workforce. And there will be this pent up demand where, because of the social distancing, people have been emotionally depressed and there will be this desire to get out and enjoy just living. We have the world’s biggest playground.

WARMOTH: And I think people will be a little timid at first, but they’re going to want to get out and at least do something, to your point. A lot of people have maybe seen the headlines about WWE being an essential business and they see it’s happening in Orange County and they think it came from you. Can you just explain what went on here and where it came from?

DEMINGS: It came from the governor’s office. The governor did not consult with me about how he would go about deeming business here in Florida essential or non-essential. Initially when the governor put his order out the WWE was not deemed an essential business, it was non-essential. I assume that there was a representative from within the WWE who had a conversation with the governor, and a day or so after the governor put out his directive he expanded that directive and included the WWE. I did not play in a role in that specifically, and they were able to convince the governor that they were a media company and therefore they should’ve been deemed essential. In either case, I don’t know if I buy that. I think that may have been a stretch of the intent of what we typically look at. We typically look at businesses that support life, health or safety for a community as those essential businesses. If you are one of the supporters of the life, health and safety components that we have as a community and as a nation, then you can understand why they’re deemed an essential business. When you look at the WWE I’m not sure they fit in that, and I do realize the governor has been criticized for that, but that was not a decision made here at the local level.

WARMOTH: Last question. Folks are going through a tough time right now whether it’s financially or on the health side of the things. What’s your message to the people of Orange County during this time?

DEMINGS: What I would say to the residents of Orange County is that we are going to get through this. We are getting through it. I believe that in early summer we’ll start to see the relaxing of the restrictions that we’ve put in place if we continue to be effective in what we’re doing now. With the assistance of all of our community, we can have the kind of success where we can open sooner rather than later.

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About the Author:

Justin Warmoth joined News 6 in February 2013 as our Brevard County reporter. In March of 2016, after anchoring the weekend mornings since August of 2015, Justin was promoted to weekday morning anchor. You can catch him Monday through Friday mornings from 5-7 a.m. and at noon.