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Florida Congresswoman On How Her State Is Handling COVID-19

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Florida has become the epicenter for COVID-19 cases. The state reported more cases this week than the United Kingdom or Spain. Florida's Department of Health confirmed more than 11,000 new cases Friday for the fourth straight day. More than a hundred people died.

Representative Donna Shalala represents the South Florida district that includes Miami and Miami Beach, where infections are rising. Of course, she's also former HHS secretary in the Clinton administration. Representative Shalala, thanks so much for being with us.

DONNA SHALALA: You're welcome.

SIMON: What do you hear from your constituents? So many seniors live there.

SHALALA: I think they're frightened and scared. And the lack of leadership in our state and, of course, in our country - we opened too soon. We didn't hit this virus with a hammer. We didn't starve it right down. So now we've got community spread, and it's just - it's tragic and it's scary.

SIMON: As I don't have to tell you, masks have become such a flashpoint. You and 11 other Florida Democrats have signed a letter asking Governor DeSantis to require masks for all residents, in addition to a number of other points. At this point, should anyone really need a new law to know that it's just smart for them to wear a mask?

SHALALA: No, they certainly shouldn't have to. But the governor - the leaders have to lead. And the governor, by requiring masks, as our county mayor has, would send a message of respect. It's not simply a message of safety. It's when I put on a mask, I'm respecting you. And when you put on a mask, you're respecting me and helping significantly to hold down this virus.

It makes no sense to me why it's been politicized. This is an infectious disease. It's not a Republican or a Democrat. And we shouldn't be politicizing it. This is about a disease - a war against a disease. All of us are in this together fighting this disease, and masks are one way we can protect others.

SIMON: You've headed two great universities, Miami and Wisconsin. You know how difficult it's been for young students not to be in school - difficult for them and their families. But as we approach the school year during this surge, should schools in Florida be open?

SHALALA: Oh, they can't open right now. There's no question about it. Our superintendent has made it very clear that we have to be - that we have to starve this virus right down before it's safe for us to open the schools. It's not just about the children. It's about their parents. It's about the teachers. It's about the staff members. We cannot put anyone at risk when we know clearly that we would be when you have this kind of community spread.

So we need to beat on this virus with a hammer, and then we have to have a strategy to open the schools safely. I have great confidence in our superintendent and the leaders of our school system in waiting enough and then putting in place a safe strategy. All of us want our children to go back to school. The kids want to go back to school. But why would we put them at risk or anyone else at risk? That's just not what we do. The first thing we do is we protect our children.

SIMON: Representative Shalala, your heart and mind must be full over the loss of John Lewis this morning.

SHALALA: He was a wonderful friend. I had known John Lewis for 40 years. I met him at the beginning of my career and, of course, I've been in congress with him for the last two years. He welcomed me with such a warm embrace and said to me, you belong here with us. He was - I was with him at Selma earlier this year. He was an extraordinary...

SIMON: The march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge that they do.

SHALALA: Exactly.

SIMON: Yeah.

SHALALA: He was an extraordinary human being, not just a civil rights leader. But his soul was so pure. He was so forgiving but strong, strong, strong, strong on every issue of human rights. He fought for every part of our community and taught us a lot in the process about dignity and respect and how to live your life.

SIMON: Representative Donna Shalala of Florida speaking with us from Miami. Representative Shalala, thanks so much for being with us.

SHALALA: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.