ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — As the coronavirus savaged other parts of the country, Florida, buoyed by low infection rates, seemed an ideal location for a nation looking to emerge from isolation. The Republican National Convention moved from Charlotte to Jacksonville, the NBA eyed a season finale at a Disney sports complex near Orlando and millions packed onto once-empty beaches.
Weeks later, the Sunshine State has emerged as a coronavirus epicenter. Nearly 1 out of every 100 residents is infected with the virus, hospital intensive care units are full or filling up, and big-name visitors who chose Florida for their first post-isolation events are now mired in questions and controversies about safety.
Amid escalating infections, Florida, once held up by President Trump as a model for how to manage the novel coronavirus, is faring poorly. Residents worry the situation will get much worse. Florida is now one of a handful of states whose spiking numbers are driving a major resurgence of the virus in the United States, which is approaching 3 million cases.
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has downplayed the growing outbreak in Florida, saying expanded testing is responsible for more positive results and emphasizing that many new infections are among younger people less likely to experience the worst effects of the virus.
On Tuesday there were 213,794 cases of the coronavirus in Florida, according to Washington Post data. The state has tallied a record number of cases over the past week, averaging 8,766 a day, according to Post data.
In a sign of intensifying trouble, 52 intensive care units across more than a third of the state’s counties had reached capacity by Tuesday, according to data released by the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration. Another 17 hospitals had also run out of regular beds. The state has “abundant capacity,” DeSantis said at a news conference Tuesday.
Some nurses at Good Samaritan Medical Center in West Palm Beach have been working 18 hours instead of the usual 12 because of overnight staffing shortages, according to a nurse who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing her job. Patients are being treated in an open area cordoned off by curtains that is typically used for quick medical consultations, she said.
“We’re overfilled and understaffed,” she said. “It’s really bad.”
Ryan Lieber, a spokesman for the hospital, denied employees were being asked to work 18-hour shifts, adding in a statement, “Patients are being treated in areas of the hospital which are considered appropriate for their care, and respectful of their privacy at all times.”
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran late Monday ordered that the state’s schools open for in-person instruction next month, igniting fears that a new round of classroom interactions would lead to a new round of infections.
“We want to proceed with caution, but unfortunately the governor continues to deny the science,” said Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association. “The trend over the last 30 days has been astronomical. We’re in regression, we’re going backward. In terms of the amount of cases, we are literally going backward as a state.”
Hospital leaders, lawmakers, physicians, epidemiologists, advocates and others familiar with the state’s response said a false sense of security set in when grim predictions about the virus’s spread in Florida did not come to pass in March and April. DeSantis declared victory, attending a laudatory news conference at the White House with President Trump. The editor of National Review wrote an editorial titled “Where does Ron DeSantis go to get his apology?”
But observers maintain the state then failed to prepare for a surge of the virus, which struck as residents were seeking refuge in air-conditioned indoor spaces, where the virus is believed to be most easily transmitted.
Sports leagues that opted to restart their seasons in Florida will now play in a state that is in worse shape than when the pandemic began. Many teams are already in the state, and they face a growing number of critics who believe they should cancel games.
The Republican National Convention, scheduled to take place in Jacksonville next month, faces similar questions about safety. In June, the Republican National Committee announced that it would move its convention from a worried Charlotte to a welcoming Jacksonville. But as cases mount in the city, worries have crept in.
“My concern has grown since a week ago. It has gotten worse,” said Tommy Hazouri, the Democratic president of the city council and a former Jacksonville mayor. Hazouri was initially supportive of his city’s effort to secure the convention.
“It is time to accept reality, and no one can be in denial about what is going on,” he said. “At some point our council and the leaders in this community have to draw a line in the sand on where we need to be going.”
Several hundred doctors have signed a petition that says the convention needs stronger safety measures. Nancy Staats, a retired anesthesiologist who lives in the Jacksonville area, said she hoped a few dozen doctors would sign the petition she helped circulate. Within three days, nearly 500 had added their names.
“We’re really focused on the health and well-being of the citizens of our city and state now. That’s still six or seven weeks off and we’re still climbing scarily, rapidly,” Staats said. “This is about people’s lives, including the attendees of this event.”
NBA and Major League Soccer teams have already landed in Orlando, hoping they play in a coronavirus-free bubble.
A day before resuming summer tournaments, FC Dallas was sent home after a coach and 10 players tested positive for the coronavirus at the same Disney sports complex that will host the NBA later this month. Nashville SC’s first game Wednesday was postponed after five players tested positive for the virus and four tests were inconclusive.
“I am excited to play,” D.C. United midfielder Julian Gressel said. “I’m not excited about the part that obviously puts us at risk.”
At a Fortune magazine virtual forum Tuesday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged that Florida’s situation has significantly deteriorated in recent weeks.
“On paper and dealing with our experts, this should work,” he said. “But we shall see. I’m confident — based on the positive cases we’re seeing from our players and the general public around the country — that it will be safer on this campus than off this campus.”
Still, numerous NBA stars have expressed deep concern about the health situation in Florida. More than a dozen players have decided to sit out the restart for various reasons.
Disney World has announced it would begin to allow visitors back into the Magic Kingdom this week. Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., said it would remain closed.
The Actors’ Equity Association, a union that represents more than 700 Disney World stage managers and actors, has locked horns with the amusement park, saying it has failed to provide a coronavirus testing plan that would help prevent performers from passing the coronavirus onto others.
“You certainly can’t wave Mickey’s magic wand and say that Florida isn’t a central hot spot right now,” said Kate Shindle, the union’s president. “Personally, as the president of the organization that is fighting for the safety of these performers, I’m mystified by the fact that Disney is attempting to open the park right now.”
Disney did not return a request for comment.
The new, high-profile risks threaten to compound problems Florida has faced from the beginning of the pandemic.
There has been a rise in cases affecting older Floridians as well as those living in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, said Jeff Johnson, Florida director of AARP.
“I don’t see how that doesn’t mushroom at some point,” he said, noting that staff at the facilities live in communities still grappling with the virus, sometimes working second or third jobs that involve interactions with people of diverse age groups.
Testing sites across the state are seeing shortages, and the wait time for results is now as long as 10 days, said U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat representing a swath of the coast stretching from Broward County to Palm Beach County. The problems stem, he said, from the apparent failure to produce a testing plan as required by Congress, or at least to unveil any of its details. He has been asking for details, he said, but has been rebuffed by the state health department, whose deadline was extended from June 15 to Friday. The health department did not respond to requests for comment.
There were also acute shortages of the antiviral drug remdesivir in parts of the state, causing Democratic members of Florida’s congressional delegation to send a letter Tuesday to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar asking him to speed the shipment of emergency supplies.
“Staff capacity is strained; the number of available ICU beds are dwindling; and we are running out of remdesivir . . .” the lawmakers wrote, warning that “people will die without replenished stock.”
Amid the array of old and new concerns, teachers across Florida learned they would have to begin preparing their classrooms for an influx of students.
In Palm Beach County, first-grade teacher Cara Conlogue, who teaches at Coral Reef Elementary School west of Lake Worth Beach, said the messages coming from the state are frightening and confusing.
“The science is going in one direction, and conditions are getting worse, and the politicians are going in the opposite direction,” Conlogue said. “I can’t wrap my head around it. If it wasn’t safe for us when there were 100 cases, how can it be safe for us when we have thousands and thousands of cases? I don’t get that logic.”
“I’ve spoken with a lot of my teacher friends, and a lot of them don’t want to go back,” she continued. “We love our students, we miss them, and we love our jobs. But we don’t feel safe.”
Wootson reported from St. Petersburg, Stanley-Becker from Washington and Rozsa from West Palm Beach. Steven Goff and Michael Scherer in Washington and Ben Golliver in Los Angeles contributed to this report.