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This Florida COVID-19 surge is different. So is the state's response

Kirby Wilson and Diti Kohli, Tampa Bay Times on

Published in News & Features

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida has been here before. But not like this.

This wave of the coronavirus crashing over the state is different. The strain is different: delta appears far more infectious than previous versions of the virus.

The patients filling hospitals at an alarming rate are different. They’re younger, and healthier. In the overwhelming majority of cases, they’re unvaccinated.

And the politics are different.

Last year, local governments issued mandates: Mask up. Shut down. Ride it out. But since then, Republican leaders have taken steps to forbid municipalities from instituting new restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. Now, some local officials say all they can do is beg people to get shots.

“In a perfect world, we would have the ability to look at things like mask mandates,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said in a Friday interview. “At this point in time, all I can say is ‘Please get vaccinated,’ because we don’t want anyone to get unnecessarily ill or to die.”

 

Few leaders from either party at any level are calling for actions like business shutdowns. That’s another change in precedent. Last summer, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration suspended drinking alcohol at bars. Since last fall, DeSantis, a Republican, has sworn off business restrictions and mandates of any kind. Many prominent Democrats, including President Joe Biden and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, now agree governments should not shut down businesses in an attempt to slow the virus’ spread.

But without the blunt instrument of a lockdown or a mask mandate, it’s unclear what localities are supposed to do while their hospitals fill up. Earlier this year, DeSantis signed a law banning governments, schools and businesses from requiring proof of coronavirus vaccinations from the people seeking their services. Under that law, local governments also may not declare states of emergency for longer than seven days at a time. Under an executive order he signed in May, cities may not enforce any sort of COVID-19-related mandate.

Kriseman, a Democrat, said he would look at potentially mandating vaccines for St. Petersburg’s 3,000 employees. Leon County and Orange County — where COVID-19 hospitalizations are surging — did something similar earlier this week. It’s unclear whether such actions will be challenged; DeSantis’ office said his legal team is reviewing the issue.

Hillsborough County will require the public to wear masks inside county buildings beginning Monday. Hillsborough County Commission chair Pat Kemp said she would like to pass another countywide mask ordinance, but the new state law has essentially forbidden her from doing so.

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