Department of Agriculture says Gov. DeSantis ‘mistaken’ about farmworkers increasing Florida’s coronavirus numbers

Florida governor says farmworkers packed ’like sardines’ on school buses, causing COVID-19 spread

In this Monday, June 8, 2020, photo, a man cycles past a hand washing station set up outside of a popular supermarket amid the new coronavirus pandemic in Immokalee, Fla. Even as the pace of new cases has moderated in the state of Florida, this poor farmworking town in rural Florida is in the throes of an outbreak. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) (Lynne Sladky, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Gov. Ron DeSantis again echoed his sentiments from last week about COVID-19 spread among Florida farmworkers as the state reported the highest increase in new coronavirus cases Tuesday, however, the Florida Department of Agriculture says the governor is mistaken.

During a news conference Tuesday, DeSantis said an increase in testing and spread among certain communities, including long-term care facilities, prisons and migrant farmworkers were to blame for the new cases. The governor said he has no plans to roll back the current phase two reopening stage Florida started last week.

Like last week, Florida’s governor mentioned a watermelon farm saying the farm, which he did not name, was tied to 90 cases. He blamed poor working conditions and close quarters.

“You have very risky working conditions, particularly in these farm camps or with some of these construction workers, you know some of these guys, they go to work in a school bus, and they’re like sardines going across like Palm Beach County or some of these other places, and you know just all these opportunities to have transmission,” DeSantis said.

As of Tuesday, the Florida Department of Health reported 2,783 new cases of COVID-19 and 55 new deaths from the virus. This is the largest jump in newly reported cases of COVID-19 since the disease was detected in the state on March 1. The total number of coronavirus cases reported in Florida is up to 80,109, along with 2,993 total deaths.

DeSantis mentioned several examples of work places around the state that could be driving up the state’s positivity rate, the rate of new positive cases. Florida’s positivity rates has been as low at 4% but on Monday it was 10%, according to the Florida Department of Health.

“There was a migrant worker from Miami that went up to this watermelon farm, was positive with COVID. They figured that out. So then they tested 100 workers at the watermelon farm and 90 of them tested positive,” DeSantis said, adding he thinks they didn’t have symptoms of the virus. “So that’s a 90% positivity.”

DeSantis said part of the spread is caused by workers living in close confines, sometimes multigenerationally.

The governor said the state DOH is also tracing COVID-19 cases in construction workers and warning other states as migrant workers leave the state for work elsewhere.

“They’re also looking at construction workers and other types of day laborers, they’re finding these are overwhelmingly Hispanic workers and day laborers, but they were in Northwest Florida (where they) found a couple cases,” he said.

Again, like last week, the Florida Department of Agriculture disputed the governor’s statements about Florida’s farmworkers.

The Governor is mistaken regarding agriculture being a primary driver of COVID-19 in Florida. Commissioner Fried has been in close, regular communication with Florida’s leading agricultural associations throughout COVID-19. There is evidence of community spread of COVID-19 in areas where farms are located, but the vast majority of farmworkers left agricultural communities several weeks ago, as harvests have ended," Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services spokesman Franco Ripple said in a statement.

By the governor’s timeline, workers starting leaving this past weekend.

“Some of them already left this weekend to go to other states. Florida’s Department of Health is in contact with Georgia, Alabama, some of these other states to be able to work with them and give them a heads up about what might be coming down the pike,” DeSantis said.

Ripple said as the state continues along the governor’s reopening plan, which began in early May, Florida will continue on this upward trend.

“As the governor continues to prematurely reopen Florida, we’re seeing increases in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and positivity in recent weeks, including the state’s highest-ever single-day number of cases just yesterday. Many areas where cases are spiking are in non-agricultural counties, such as Broward, Duval and Hillsborough, which have seen their highest positive case days in over a month,” Ripple said.

If the Florida Department of Health is concerned about spread among Florida’s farmworkers, that has not been communicated to the Florida Department of Agriculture.

“The Florida Department of Health has not communicated to our department any specific concerns about agriculture and COVID-19,” Ripple said.

Commissioner Nikki Fried previously sent a 10-page report to the governor’s re-opening task force that included safety recommendations to prevent COVID-19 spread among farmworkers, but according to her office, the governor did not respond.

“Commissioner Fried recommended that the Governor work with her to ensure that PPE, health care, and COVID-19 testing for farmworkers be provided, but has not received any response," Ripple said.

The Associated Press reports efforts to conduct broad local testing in one farming community in Collier County in the migrant community of Immokalee did not begin in earnest until early May, just when officials began lifting restrictions statewide to restart the economy. The nonprofit Coalition of Immokalee Workers had requested tests in March, at the same time authorities had set up mass testing sites elsewhere in the state.

With no response from the state, the coalition contacted international aid group Doctors Without Borders, which sent a COVID-19 response team in April. Team members found that farmworkers were traveling in crowded buses and had no easy access to testing. Some drove 45 minutes to get tested in Fort Myers and Naples.

The secluded town of 25,000 north of the Everglades has reported more than 1,300 cases, outpacing in recent weeks the rate of infection in Orlando, which has a population 10 times bigger and is home to a busy international airport. The number of total cases in Immokalee has surpassed those in Miami Beach, with more than 900, and St. Petersburg, which has more than 800, according to state health department statistics.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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