Senate Democrats called out state Republican leaders Wednesday amid increasing cases of the coronavirus, including questioning Gov. Ron DeSantis for maintaining Florida is “not going back” on its reopening.
In a conference call with reporters, members of the Senate’s minority party expressed concern that their push for a statewide mandate that people wear masks in public has become a political issue rather than a health measure. The Democratic lawmakers also said DeSantis needs to put a hold on his reopening efforts --- which have slowed with the surge in coronavirus cases --- and called for lawmakers to return to Tallahassee to address the economic impacts of the pandemic.
“For much of this pandemic, the governor's approach, like the President's (Donald Trump’s), has been hands-off,” Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, said. “We saw this in reporting transparency, in stay-at-home orders, in beach closings, in wearing masks and in bringing down these incredibly high numbers. It's like he's reluctant to take on a fight to stop the virus, always running after it instead of getting in front of it.”
Florida is in the second phase of DeSantis’ reopening effort after businesses were forced to shut down or dramatically scale back in March and April to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
Despite the reopening, the state on Friday suspended the serving of alcohol at bars because of reports of rampant violations of a rule limiting the number of people who could be in the establishments. The state reported that it has had nearly 159,000 COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday morning.
Democrats have repeatedly called for holding a special legislative session to address COVID-19 issues but have been largely ignored by Republican leaders.
“We're ready to go to Tallahassee to do our job and legislate,” Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, said. “And yet we have the presiding officers of the House and Senate working out backroom deals with the governor to try to figure out how they can spin things and keep us from doing our job in Tallahassee. We're ready to work. We're ready to take this crisis seriously. We're proposing a whole series of things that that we need to get done. And we need a partnership from the governor to do them. And we need our Legislature to take this seriously and take our constitutional duty seriously.”
The pandemic has led to plummeting state tax revenues, helping spur DeSantis this week to veto $1 billion in proposed spending from the budget for the fiscal year that began Wednesday.
House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said the vetoes put “Florida on solid ground to be fiscally prepared to participate in an economic recovery.” Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said the cuts “further buffer our working capital reserves, creating flexibility that will be needed in both the coming year and during the next budget cycle.”
While lawmakers passed the spending plan in March, DeSantis said Wednesday he waited to sign the $92.2 billion budget to get the latest revenue estimates, coronavirus information and the possibility of further federal stimulus assistance.
“We wanted to wait till the end. We had a lot of stuff, a lot of irons in the fire,” DeSantis said. “That's just kind of the nature of this year. There's things happening all the time. We’ve got a really big state. A lot is going on. The epidemic is not uniform throughout the state. If you look at what's happening in Miami Dade, that's different than what will be happening in, like, Orange County or Volusia (County).”
At a bill-signing event Tuesday in Juno Beach and at an appearance Wednesday at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, DeSantis maintained that the increase in COVID-19 cases is in large part due to people under age 40 who have been more socially active as the state lifted stay-at-home orders.
“We're not going back to closing things,” DeSantis said Tuesday.
But Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said before moving forward with further reopening, the state should follow federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines of at least 14 days with a downward trajectory in cases.
“We can also help reduce the numbers,” Gibson said. “It's pretty simple. It's pretty simple by keeping our social distancing and wearing face masks or face coverings.”