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Public Health Expert To DeSantis: Florida Needs Statewide Stay-At-Home Order

"We're way behind in testing, so he doesn't know, we don't know where the virus has spread." - public health professor Tracy Zontek on DeSantis' argument that not all parts of the state need stay-at-home orders.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

As cities and counties across the state are putting stay-at-home orders in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Ron DeSantis continues to defy calls for a statewide order.

Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini spoke with Tracy Zontek, associate professor of public health at the University of Tampa, about his decision.

The governor's argument for not doing a statewide order has largely been that he doesn't want areas with no cases or even just a few cases to suffer financially. But he supports cities and counties imposing their own orders.

What are the challenges with taking a patchwork approach like that?

If we do piecemeal, we risk infecting other communities that are not infected, because it will tell people, “Well in my county I can't do this, but I can do it in the next county.” So the piecemeal approach is really going to increase our number of cases because we won't have controlled anything.

We need to do a statewide issue. And Tampa Bay really needs to do a regional issue even if the governor does not.

One of the things I'm mostly concerned about is it seems like Gov. DeSantis – and it's a very difficult decision, I understand that – but he's kind of basing his ideas on, “We're not going to shut you down, we're not going to have stay-at-home orders where the virus hasn't spread.” That's not a good assumption because Florida hasn't done the testing yet. We're way behind in testing, so he doesn't know, we don't know where the virus has spread.

And if you look at the Columbia [University] model, they're thinking that every person infects 2.2 other people, and about one-in-11 infections go unreported. So that's kind of leaving us very vulnerable.

And we're just going to keep going downhill and have more and more health issues and overwhelm our hospitals. And I think it's going to be counterproductive if we don't do a stay-at-home order as soon as possible.

What does this type of order mean for community?

We're not really making it mandatory for sheltering in place, even though some communities are calling it that, it's really stay at home.

You should stay at home except if you need medical care, groceries, very critical, essential things. At this point, we can still go pick up food from restaurants. They’re [public officials] telling people to get outside and exercise and that's great advice, and stay six feet away from people. So stay at home means you need to really limit your contact with any other human beings.

I mentioned economic concerns, but what are some of the other negative consequences that could arise from such restrictive measures? And in this case do the benefits outweigh the costs?

That's a great question. Because when we start doing the stay-at-home orders, and we're looking at this physical distancing, social distancing, that can have effects on people's mental health. And it's hard for people to manage that, especially when everyone has to pretty much do everything online right now.

The other economic issue that I've been concerned about is that as people lose their jobs, they may be asking for unemployment insurance. And we do have this new [federal] stimulus bill, so the government gives people a payout, but then long-term, what are they [residents] going to do?

That's going to fall back onto our local social service agencies and those kinds of systems are already overwhelmed. Our health departments are overwhelmed, social services were already overwhelmed before we even had this issue.

But ultimately, we need to make sure that people are alive and that the majority of people are going to be healthy. What is the greater good for our state, our country and our communities? I truly believe that it’s going to be the stay-at-home order until we get through this and it's probably going to be a longer than a lot of people want.

That's something that I think has been really hard for people. How can leaders get this tough message across that we need to act now and for a long time, but we're not going to see results tomorrow?

Yes. And that is so hard because we are a very much “what have you done for me lately?” society.

One of the biggest issues I'm seeing is a lot of misinformation on social media. That really makes it a lot harder for us to overcome those issues.

The faster we get this in action, the more lives we can save. We won’t expose as many people, that will flatten the curve.

Florida was part of an early wave of states that decided to close schools, but then has lagged behind other states when it comes to things like implementing these orders, closing public places, etc.

Florida’s hospitality industry is so important to the state’s economy and I think that’s why Gov. DeSantis didn’t close restaurants and beaches as soon as other states. Should he have?

In my opinion yes. The first step at limiting to 50 percent occupancy was good but it still sent the message that it’s still okay to go out and interact with people you just need to be a little further apart. So I think that may have not helped things because it continued to allow the virus to spread and for us to expose other people.

It probably would have been better to just do it all at once, but I understand the issues of economics and how difficult situation that was but I do believe that should have been done earlier. It’s hard because a lot of our leaders don’t have a lot of health knowledge or understand how diseases work.

But ultimately, in order to have a strong government and a strong economy, we need healthy people. And the longer this goes, the fewer healthy people there are going to be.

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Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.