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Florida Democrats urge stronger coronavirus protections despite November losses

Senate minority leader: 'We're not calling for a shutdown'
Posted at 7:22 PM, Dec 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-10 19:22:11-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Democrats railed against Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday for continuing to oppose stronger COVID-19 protections.

During a news conference, they offered up a buffet of complaints, saying the pandemic continues to grow dire in the Sunshine State. While hospitalizations are lower, daily case totals are increasing to summer levels.

"We're not calling for a shutdown," Sen. Gary Farmer, the party's new Senate minority leader, said. "We are calling for harm reduction and mitigation."

The lawmakers pushed for more transparency on virus data. Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, said members of the caucus are worried state officials are withholding damning details.

"The surgeon general and county health departments have been muzzled," she said. "We have concerns about the positivity rates and death numbers being massaged."

The legislators also renewed a push for a state-wide mask order suggesting it would allow businesses to stay open while slowing coronavirus infections.

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, questioned the burden of such an order.

"It's a piece of cloth," she said. "A mask is not a symbol of liberty. It is a tool that can help stop the spread of this terrible disease and save lives."

DeSantis reaffirmed his opposition to mandates like a mask order last week. He told reporters he doesn't believe Floridians should face penalties for noncompliance and doubted the effectiveness of orders.

"Has that stopped an outbreak in Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan?" DeSantis said. "What about New Jersey? What about all these states where you have an explosion of cases?"

Through executive order, the Republican leader suspended COVID-19 enforcement fines earlier this year. He’s also taking a hard-line limited-government stance on most other protections.

Florida State University Professor Carol Weissert said not to expect any weakening in the coming months. She points out the GOP gained legislative seats in the election, which voters likely saw as a referendum on pandemic policies.

"Republicans are correct in thinking they're marching along with orders from the population," she said. "It's conceivable something huge will happen, but our numbers are so high in the state, and yet people seem to be falling more on the economic recovery side than the public health side."

Florida will likely remain at the status quo, she expected, even after lawmakers return for the legislative session in March. Before that, however, committee meetings begin in January. It'll be a first chance to gauge bipartisanship temperatures as competing views of COVID-19 among Republicans and Democrats clash.