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GUEST EDITORIAL: Don’t get complacent about COVID-19

Staff Writer
The News Herald
The News Herald

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Florida has so far avoided the worst-case scenarios for coronavirus cases through safe practices such as social distancing, which must continue even as businesses start to reopen.

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Wednesday that the state would be moving May 4 into the first phase of reopening businesses, which includes restaurants and non-essential retail stores allowing customers at 25% capacity. Rather than crediting Floridians for allowing the state to get to this point by taking the pandemic seriously, DeSantis instead bashed the media for warning about the potential for COVID-19 cases to overwhelm hospitals.

The governor initially left it to counties such as Alachua to figure out their own social-distancing measures before he issued a statewide stay-at-home order April 1, an important step in preventing the worst outcomes. Florida has consequently outperformed the United States as a whole when it comes to reducing visits to stores and taking other distancing measures, according to data from Google that tracks those trips.

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While such steps have helped keep Florida’s coronavirus cases and deaths far lower than in hot spots such as New York, this is no time for complacency. Workers as well as the customers at their businesses need to continue practicing social distancing and measures such as wearing face coverings to help prevent a resurgence in cases.

In some areas, commissioners have debated whether to require face masks to be worn in public. Perhaps businesses where employees aren’t wearing masks might be required to post a sign warning customers.

An alternative would be for businesses that require employees to wear masks to post signs advertising that fact, encouraging people to choose those businesses and pressuring others to follow suit. DeSantis himself suggested at Wednesday’s announcement that masks should be worn at workplaces, echoing the recommendation of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for Americans to wear cloth face coverings in public.

But masks are no substitute for continuing safe practices such as keeping a 6-foot distance from other people while in public. Floridians should also at the very least continue to avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people, as the state order recommends.

While Florida compares favorably with several other large states, we are far from being in the clear. Relaxing social-distancing measures prematurely could cause a second wave of cases, only increasing the amount of time that a stricter lockdown is needed.

The governor acknowledged that the situation is worse in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties by exempting them from the first phase of reopening businesses. But there isn’t a moat around those counties preventing people from spreading the virus elsewhere in Florida. Continuing to expand testing and contact tracing are critical to containing outbreaks.

DeSantis is right in implementing a more measured and data-driven approach to reopening businesses than in some other states. But it would be better if he acknowledged the approach was made possible by Floridians taking social distancing seriously, and to focus on encouraging people to keep up these measures if they want more businesses to reopen.